It is with a great deal of excitement that we share an exclusive excerpt of the incomparable Tessa Dare’s book, The Wallflower Wager, publishing today.
About The Wallflower Wager
They call him the Duke of Ruin, but to an undaunted wallflower, he’s just the beast next door. Wealthy and ruthless, Gabriel Duke has clawed his way from the lowliest slums to the pinnacle of high society — and now he wants to get even. Loyal and passionate, Lady Penelope Campion never met a lost or wounded creature she wouldn’t take into her home and her heart. When her imposing — and attractive — new neighbor demands she clear out the rescued animals, Penny sets him a challenge. She will part with her precious charges, if he can find them loving homes.
Done, Gabriel says. How hard can it be to find homes for a few kittens? Soon he is being bewitched by a shyly pretty spinster who defies his every attempt to resist. She’s set her mind and heart on saving him. Not if he ruins her first.
Penny watched in silence as the Gabriel Duke turned and stalked to his dressing room.
Then she melted into a quivering pool on the floor.
He’d left the door ajar. As his towel dropped to the floor, she caught a glimpse of taut, muscled backside before tearing her gaze away.
Oh Lord oh Lord oh Lord.
Once she’d latched and re-latched Delilah’s cage for good measure, Penny stood and attempted to piece herself back together.
She glanced at her dressing gown. The faded toile print was years behind the fashion, and the ends of the sash were hopelessly frayed — the casualty of many a playful kitten’s swipe. And her hair… Oh, she could only imagine the state of her hair after this adventure.
She peered into the dressing-table mirror. Worse than she’d feared. Her plait made Delilah’s ruffled crest look sleek. Penny quickly unknotted the bit of muslin around her braid and combed her hair with her fingers before rebraiding it and tying off the end.
She squinted into the mirror again. Better, she judged. Not a great deal better. But better.
From the dressing room, Mr. Duke gave an annoyed groan.
“I’m so sorry for the imposition,” she called. “Delilah only came to live in Bloom Square a few weeks ago. Her mistress passed away. Parrots are loyal and intelligent, and they often outlive their human companions. So she’s not only been uprooted from her home, she’s in mourning.”
“I must say, she doesn’t sound particularly aggrieved to me.”
“She does say the most amusing things, doesn’t she? ‘Pretty girl,’ and ‘yes,’ and — Do you hear that one? ‘Fancy a…’ what? I never can catch what she’s saying at the end. It’s certainly not biscuit. ‘Fancy a cuppa,’ perhaps? But who gives a parrot tea? It sounds a great deal like ‘fancy a foxglove,’ but that makes even less sense. I don’t mind saying the mystery is driving me a bit mad.”
She froze. “I’m not that upset about it.”
He returned to the bedchamber, now clothed in a pair of trousers and an unbuttoned shirt. “It’s what the parrot’s saying. ‘Fancy a fuck, love.’ That bird came from a whorehouse.”
She spent a few moments in scandalized silence. No one had ever spoken to her in such a manner — but that wasn’t the disturbing part. The disturbing part was how much she liked it.
“That can’t be,” she said. “She belonged to a little old lady. That’s what I was told.”
“Bawds turn into little old ladies, too.”
“Pretty girl.” Delilah gave a cheeky whistle. “Fancy a f—”
Penny pressed a hand to her mouth. “Oh, no.”
“Yes! Yes! Ooh! Yes!”
Mr. Duke sat to pull on his boots. “Please tell me I don’t need to translate that for you.”
Penny couldn’t think of anything she might say to make this exchange less horrifying. She couldn’t have said anything at all. It wasn’t that she’d lost her tongue. Her tongue had curled up and died.
Boots donned, he strode the door and held it open for her. Penny gratefully lifted the birdcage and hurried to escape.
“I know how fragile a lady’s reputation can be,” he said. “Just so it’s understood — no one can ever know you were here.”
Penny jumped in her skin.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Burns, stood in the corridor. Her eyes slid to her employer. “Mr. Duke.”
Mr. Duke cursed under his breath. If she were the sort to use profanity, Penny would have cursed, too.
Mrs. Burns had managed the Wendleby house for as long as Penny could remember. When she was a girl, the housekeeper had terrified her.
Little had changed in that regard. The woman was even more frightening now, clad in black from head to toe with her hair parted severely down the center. The candle she held threw macabre shadows across her face.
“Is there some way I can be of service?” she solemnly intoned.
“My parrot flew in through the window and I came over to retrieve her,” Penny hastily explained. “Mr. Duke was kind enough to help. Mrs. Burns, perhaps you’d be so good as to accompany me home?”
“That would be prudent.” The housekeeper gave her a disapproving look. “In the future, my lady, might I suggest you wake a servant to let you in the house.”
“Oh, this won’t happen again.” Penny slid a glance toward Mr. Duke as she moved to leave. “I can promise you that.”
In fact, Penny had formed a simple plan to cope with this situation.
Thank the man for his help…
Calmly make her retreat…
And then never, ever leave her house again.
As the owner of properties all over Britain — hotels, town houses, mines, factories, country estates — Gabe was accustomed to awakening in unfamiliar rooms. Three things, however, never altered.
He always woke with the dawn.
He always woke hungry.
And he always woke up alone.
He had a set of rules when it came to sexual congress — he didn’t pay for it, he wouldn’t beg for it, and he damned well wasn’t going to wed for it. When based in London, he found casual lovers with no difficulty, but lately he’d been moving from place to place so often he simply couldn’t find the time.
On this particular morning, he sat up in the bed, gave himself a shake, and familiarized himself with his surroundings. Mayfair. Bloom Square. The house that ought to bring a satisfying profit, once it was finally ready to be sold.
The house next door to her. Lady Penelope Campion — the aging, frazzled, unsightly spinster who…
Who wasn’t any of those things. Not by a mile. As fortune would have it, Lady Penelope Campion turned out to be a fair-haired, blue-eyed beauty.
In his mind’s eye, he could still see her sprawled across his bed in her dressing gown. Like an all-grown-up Goldilocks, having crept into his house uninvited to test the mattress. Too soft, too hard…?
He didn’t know her opinion, but Gabe’s reaction was the latter. His cock was in its usual morning prime, standing at full mast.
He scrubbed his face with one hand and stumbled to the bathroom.
He’d been too weary from travel to inspect the new fixtures yesterday, but all looked to be in order this morning. Tiled marble floor and an immense copper tub, complete with taps for running water — both hot and cold.
Last night he’d settled for a quick, cold dousing. Today, he meant to have a hot bath. He settled into the tub and turned the tap marked with an H. The tap shivered, but refused to give up any water. Gabe gave it a gentle shake, then a firm slap. Nothing.
In all his life, he’d never backed down from a fight, but this had to be his most inane confrontation yet: fisticuffs with a water tap.
He banged on the pipe, and it finally gave way with a rattle and groan. A blast of cold water sprayed him in the face. Needles of ice speared him in the eyes, the mouth. Bloody hell, even up his nose.
Round one to the water tap.
Blocking the spray with one hand, he closed the H tap with the other. Annoyed, he reached for the one marked with a C. A cold bath did have its benefits. After a few minutes of scrubbing in the bollocks-shrinking bathwater, he’d rinsed his mind of his neighbor’s soft, pink lips.
The remainder of his morning toilette was simple. He brushed his teeth, shaved, combed back his stubborn shock of hair, and dressed.
Before leaving the room, he reached for the dull silver coin on the dressing table — a single shilling, rubbed smooth — and tucked it in the pocket of his waistcoat. Over the years, a shilling had become his talisman. A reminder of where he’d come from, and how far he’d climbed. Gabe never went anywhere without one.
He opened the door and bellowed. “Hammond!”
His architect appeared a minute later, huffing from the climb up the stairs. “Good morning, Mr. Duke.”
“It might be a good morning, if the hot water taps I paid hundreds to install were functioning.” He shook his head. “This house should have been complete months ago.”
“I know that was your hope, sir.”
“It was my expectation,” Gabe corrected. “I spent three years wrangling in Chancery to gain possession of the place. I’m spending thousands to bring it up to modern standards. But I can’t turn a profit until I sell it.”
“As I indicated in my correspondence, Mr. Duke, there have been a few obstacles.”
“You call them obstacles. To me, they sound like excuses.” He gestured at the water basin. “You told me this is the latest innovation. Hot running water.”
“It is the latest innovation. It’s so new, in fact, that this is only the second boiler of its kind in England. There’s only one man on this side of the Channel who knows how to perform repairs.”
“So get that man in here to repair the cursed thing.”
“Yes, well, here we come to the obstacle.” Hammond pushed both hands through his shock of silver hair. “That particular man is dead.”
Gabe swore. “Get the other one on a ship, then.”
“Already under way.”
As they strode down the corridor, Gabe stopped to peer through the open doors, surveying the progress in each chamber. No wallpaper in this one, unfinished molding in another…
“So tell me about these other ‘obstacles’ you’ve encountered.”
Hammond stared down the staircase and lowered his voice, speaking through unmoving lips. “I’m looking at one of them now.”
Gabe peered in the same direction. “The housekeeper?”
“Oh, good,” he muttered. “You see her, too.”
“Should I not?”
“I don’t know. I’m not certain she’s human. Sometimes I think she’s a ghost who’s been haunting the place for centuries.”
Gabe gave his architect a worried look. Maybe Hammond needed a holiday. The man was getting on in years.
He assessed the housekeeper in the light of day. The woman carried herself with a strict demeanor, and her appearance might as well have been sketched in charcoal — from her severely parted black hair, down her black buttoned frock, all the way to her polished black shoes.
“She looks like the typical housekeeper if you ask me.”
“There is nothing typical about that woman,” Hammond said. “You’ll see. I swear, she moves through walls. Materializes out of thin air. You’ll be walking down a perfectly empty corridor. Suddenly, there she is right in front of you.”
Gabe had to admit, she’d certainly appeared out of nowhere last night.
“I’m an architect. If there were secret corridors in this house, I’d know — and there aren’t. I’m telling you, she’s some kind of spirit. I’m hoping you’ll sack her, but I’m not certain it would work. You’ll need an exorcism, I think.”
“Finding and training a suitable replacement would be a monumental task on its own.” Gabe knew the value of a competent employee — and after last night, he wasn’t giving the woman any reason to go spreading vindictive rumors about. “So long as she’s loyal, she stays.”
“She’s much too loyal. She doesn’t want anything changed. Projects that were done one day will be mysteriously undone the next morning.”
“So she’s meddling?”
“That, or working incantations.”
“I’m not going to sack her. When people are competent in their posts, I keep them on.” He gave Hammond a look. “Even if they are annoying.”
“I worried you’d say as much.” Hammond sighed. “Whatever else can be said for the creature, she does know this house. Better than you know the face of a shilling.”
I doubt that.
“But when she has you scared out of your wits,” Hammond said, “don’t come knocking at my door in the middle of the night. I won’t let you in.”
They made their way down the remainder of the stairs and into the breakfast room. A bowl of fruit sat on the table, waiting. Gabe’s mouth watered, and yet — as always — his instinct was to hesitate.
Don’t touch it, boy. That’s not for the likes of you.
No matter how much wealth he amassed, it seemed he would never banish that voice. And no matter how much he devoured, satisfaction eluded him. The hunger never went away.
He reached for an apple, shined it on his waistcoat, and took a defiant bite.
“And then there’s your third problem.” Hammond nodded at the window. “Just out there, on the green. Lady Penelope Campion.”
Gabe strolled to the window. She looked different this morning. Different, but no less pretty. The spring sunshine lent her fair hair a golden sheen, and a simple frock skimmed the contours of her tempting, graceful curves. Even from here, he could see her smile.
Lovely as she might be, she wasn’t Gabe’s usual sort. He wanted nothing to do with delicate, pampered misses possessing no knowledge of the world beyond Mayfair. They were painted china on a high shelf, and he was the bull charging through the shop.
All the more worrisome, then, that Lady Penelope was working her way under his skin.
He took another bite of his apple, snapping the crisp sweetness down to the core.
Gabe watched her move to the center of the green. In one gloved hand, she clutched a leash. The other of end of the leash was attached to…something furry and brown that rolled.
“What is that?”
“That would be a mongrel with two lamed hind legs. Apparently, Her Ladyship’s friend devised a little chariot for his rear half, and the dog careens around the neighborhood like a yapping billiard ball. If you think that’s strange, wait until you see the goat.”
“Hold a moment. There’s a goat?”
“Oh, yes. She grazes it on the square every afternoon. Doesn’t precisely elevate the atmosphere of Bloom Square now, does it?”
“I see the problem.”
“I’m only getting started. Her Ladyship has single-handedly set us back a month on the improvements.” Hammond pulled a collection of letters from a folio. He held one aloft and read from it. “‘Dear Mr. Hammond, I must request that you delay completion of the parquet flooring. The fumes from the lacquer are dizzying the hens. Sincerely yours, Lady Penelope Campion.’”
He withdrew another. “‘Dear Mr. Hammond, I’m afraid your improvements to the mews must be temporarily halted. I’ve located a litter of newborn kittens in the hayloft. Their mother is looking after them, but as their eyes are not yet open, they should not be displaced for another week. Thank you for your cooperation. Gratefully yours, Lady Penelope Campion.’”
Gabe sensed a theme.
“Oh, and here’s my favorite.” Hammond shook open a letter and cleared his throat for dramatic effect. “‘Dear Mr. Hammond, if it is not too great an imposition, might I ask that your workers refrain from performing heavy labor between nine o’clock in the morning and half-three in the afternoon. Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, and sensitive to loud noises. My dear Freya is losing quills. I feel certain this will concern you as much as it does me. Neighborly yours, Lady Penelope Campion.’” He tossed the folio of letters onto the table, where they landed with a smack. “Her hedgehog. Really.”
Outside, Her Ladyship coaxed her dog back toward the house, lifting both dog and cart up the few steps to her door. Gabe turned away from the window, rubbing his temples.
“The situation is untenable, and that makes the house unsellable. No one wants to live next to a barnyard. I’ve tried reasoning with her, but when it comes to those animals, she’s surprisingly tenacious.”
Tenacious, indeed. And sufficiently reckless to trespass in a house after midnight and recover a parrot from a near-naked stranger’s shoulder.
However, even that degree of tenacity had poor odds against sheer ruthlessness. Lady Penelope Campion had a softness for animals. Gabe had no softness at all.
“You make certain the work is done and bring in potential buyers.” Gabe tossed the apple core into the fireplace grate. “I’ll handle Lady Penelope Campion.”
About the Author:
Tessa Dare is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty historical romances. Her books have received numerous accolades, including Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award (twice) and multiple RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Awards. Booklist magazine named her one of the “new stars of historical romance,” and her books have been contracted for translation in a dozen languages. A librarian by training and a booklover at heart, Tessa makes her home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband, their two children, and a trio of cosmic kitties.
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