Girl Meets Duke Series, Book 3
They call him the Duke of Ruin.
To her, he’s just the beast next door.
Wealthy and ruthless, Gabriel Duke 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?
And a two-legged dog.
And a foul-mouthed parrot.
And a goat, an otter, a hedgehog…
Easier said than done, for a cold-blooded bastard who wouldn’t know a loving home from a workhouse. Soon he’s covered in cat hair, knee-deep in adorable, and bewitched by a shyly pretty spinster who defies his every attempt to resist. Now she’s set her mind and heart on saving him.
Not if he ruins her first.
“Dare’s inimitable wit, charm, humor, and emotional intensity are on full display, and readers will be smitten. Another sparkling success for Dare and her delightful Girl Meets Duke series.” ~starred review, Kirkus
“Authentic characters, witticisms, profound emotion, and echoes of trauma are primary elements in this expertly crafted novel. This riveting romance may be Dare’s best yet.” ~ starred review, Publisher’s Weekly
“Dare’s flair for ingeniously inventive and wonderfully whimsical story lines is on full display in the latest of her marvelous Girl Meets Duke books, which distinguishes itself with a plot with a serious side while still delivering just the right ratio of lushly detailed love scenes to laugh-out-loud moments.” ~ starred review, Booklist
Enjoy this preview of Chapter One of The Wallflower Wager!
Over her years of caring for unwanted animals, Lady Penelope Campion had learned a few things.
Dogs barked; rabbits hopped.
Hedgehogs curled up into pincushions.
Cats plopped in the middle of the drawing room carpet and licked themselves in indelicate places.
Confused parrots flew out open windows and settled on ledges just out of reach. And Penny leaned over window sashes in her nightdress to rescue them—even if it meant risking her own neck.
She couldn’t change her nature, any more than the lost, lonely, wounded, and abandoned creatures filling her house could change theirs.
Penny gripped the window casing with one hand and waved a treat with her other. “Come now, sweeting. This way. I’ve a biscuit for you.”
Delilah cocked her plumed head and regarded the treat. But she didn’t budge.
Penny sighed. She had no one to blame but herself, really. She’d forgotten to cover the birdcage completely at sundown, and she’d left a candle burning far too late while she finished a delicious novel. However, she’d never dreamed Delilah could be clever enough to reach between the bars with one talon and unlatch the little door.
Once the parrot had escaped her cage, out the window she flew.
Penny pursed her lips and whistled. “See, darling? It’s a lovely biscuit, isn’t it? A gingersnap.”
“Pretty girl,” the parrot chirruped.
“Yes, dear. What a pretty, pretty girl you are.”
Delilah made a tentative shuffle sideways. At last, progress.
The bird came closer . . .
“That’s it. Here you come, sweetheart.”
Closer . . .
Just a few more inches . . .
Delilah snatched the biscuit from Penny’s fingers, scuttled backward, and took a brief flight, coming to land on the windowsill of the next house.
“No. Please. No.”
With a flutter, Delilah disappeared through the open window.
Drat and blast.
The old Wendleby residence had lain vacant for years, save for a few servants to watch over the place, but the property had recently changed hands. The mysterious new owner had yet to make an appearance, but he’d sent an architect and a regiment of laborers to make several noisy, dusty improvements. A house under construction was no place for a defenseless bird to be flying about in the dark.
Penny had to retrieve her.
She eyed the ledge connecting the two houses. If she kicked off her slippers, climbed out onto the ledge, clung to the narrow lip of mortar with her bare toes, and inched across it . . . the open window would be within reach. The distance was only a few feet.
Correction: It was only a few feet to the window. It was twenty-odd feet to the ground.
Penny believed in a great many things. She believed that education was important, books were vital, women ought to have the vote, and most people were good, deep down. She believed that every last one of God’s creatures—human or otherwise—deserved love.
However, she was not fool enough to believe she could fly.
She tied her dressing gown about her waist, jammed her feet into slippers, and padded downstairs to the kitchen, where she eased open the top-left drawer of the spice cabinet. Just as she remembered, all the way at the back of the drawer, affixed to the wooden slat with a bit of candle wax, was a key.
A key that opened the Wendlebys’ back door.
Penny removed the ancient finger of metal and flaked away the wax with her thumbnail. Her family and the Wendlebys had exchanged keys decades ago, as good neighbors were wont to do. One never knew if an urgent situation might arise. This counted as an urgent situation. At this hour, waking the staff would take too much time. Delilah could fly out the way she’d entered at any moment. Penny could only hope that this key still fit its proper lock.
Out into the night she went. In one hand, she carried Delilah’s empty cage. With the other, she drew her dressing gown tight to keep out the chill.
Skulking past the front door of the house, she made her way down to the servants’ entrance. There, obscured by shadows, she slid the key into the lock, coaxing it past the tumblers. Once she’d inserted it all the way, she gave the key a wrenching twist.
With a click, the lock turned. The door fell open.
She paused, breathless, waiting for someone inside to raise the alarm.
There was only silence, save for the thudding of her heart.
Here she was, a complete stranger to criminal activity, about to commit prowling, or trespassing, or perhaps even burglary—if not some combination of the three.
A faint whistle from above underscored the urgency of her mission.
Closing the door behind her, Penny set the birdcage down on the floor, dug into the pocket of her dressing gown, and withdrew the taper and flint she’d stashed there before leaving her house. She lit the slender candle, lifted Delilah’s brass cage with the other, and continued into the house.
She made her way through the servants’ hall and up a flight of stairs, emerging into the house’s main corridor. Penny hadn’t been in this house for several years now. At that time, what with the Wendlebys’ reduced circumstances, the place had fallen into a state of genteel decay.
At last, she beheld the result of several months’ construction.
If the new owner wanted a showplace, he had achieved one. A rather cold and soulless one, in her opinion.
But then, she’d never been one for flash. And this house not only flashed—it blinded. The entrance hall was the visual equivalent of a twenty-four-trumpet fanfare. Gilded trim and mirrored panels caught the light from her candle, volleying the rays back and forth until they were amplified into a blaze.
“Delilah,” she whispered, standing at the base of the main staircase. “Delilah, where are you?”
Penny held her candle aloft and peered upward. Delilah perched on the banister on the second-floor landing.
The parrot shifted her weight from one foot to the other and cocked her head.
“Yes, darling.” Penny took the stairs in smooth, unhurried steps. “You are a very, very pretty girl. I know you’re grieving your mistress and missing your home. But this isn’t your house, see? No biscuits here. I’ll take you back home where it’s warm and cozy, and you shall have all the gingersnaps you wish. If you’ll only stay . . . right . . . th—”
Just as she came within an arm’s reach, the bird flapped her wings and ascended to the next landing.
Sacrificing quiet in favor of speed, Penny raced up the steps and arrived on the landing just in time to glimpse the parrot dart through an open doorway. She was sufficiently familiar with the house’s arrangement to know that direction would be a blind end.
She entered the room—a bedchamber with walls recently covered in lush silk damask and anchored by a massive four-poster bed. The bed was large enough to be a room unto itself, and cocooned by emerald velvet hangings.
Penny quietly shut the door behind her.
Delilah, I have you cornered now.
Cornered, perhaps, but not yet captured.
The bird led her on a chase about the room, flitting from bedpost to wardrobe to bedpost to mantel to bedpost— Heavens, why were there so many bedposts?
Between racing up the stairs and chasing about the room, Penny was out of breath. If she weren’t so dedicated to saving abandoned creatures . . .
Delilah alighted on the washstand, and Penny dove to rescue the basin and ewer before they could crash to the floor. As she replaced them, she noticed several other objects on the marble table. A cake of soap, a keen-edged razor, a toothbrush and tooth powder. Evidence of recent occupation.
Penny needed to catch that parrot and flee.
Instead of perching on a bedpost, Delilah had made the mistake of flying beneath the canopy. Now she found her escape stymied by the voluminous draperies.
Penny rushed toward the bed, took a flying leap, and managed to grasp the parrot by one tiny, taloned foot.
There. I’ve got you.
Catching the parrot would have been a triumph to celebrate. However, as her luck would have it, Penny immediately found herself caught, too.
The chamber’s connecting door swung open. A candle threw light into the room. She lost her grip on Delilah’s leg, and the bird flapped out of reach once again—leaving Penny sprawled across a stranger’s bed in her nightclothes, birdless.
As she turned her head toward the figure in the doorway, she sent up a prayer.
Please be a maid.
Of course she could not be so fortunate. A man stood in the connecting room doorway. He was holding a candle, and wearing nothing at all.
Well, he wasn’t truly naked, she corrected. He was clothed in something. That “something” was damp scrap of linen clinging so precariously to his hips that it could slide to the floor at any moment—but it qualified as clothing of a sort.
And everyone was naked beneath their clothing, weren’t they? This wasn’t so different. Why be missish about it? After all, he didn’t look embarrassed. Not in the least.
No, he looked magnificent. Magnificently irate.
“Where the hell did you come from?”
His tone of voice was understandably angry. It was also knee-erasing.
Penny scrambled out from the bed hangings and all but tumbled to the floor. “I’m from next door. Where I live. In my house.”
“Well, I own this house.”
“I didn’t realize the new owner was in residence.”
“As of this evening, I am.”
“Yes. So I see.”
She saw a great deal. Far more than was proper. Yet she couldn’t tear her gaze away.
Lord, but he was a big, beautiful beast of a man.
There was just so much of him. Tall, broad, powerfully muscled. And utterly bare, save for that thin bit of toweling and his thick, dark hair. He had a great deal of hair. Not only plastered in damp curls on his head, but defining the hard line of his jaw. And lightly furring his chest.
He had nipples. Two of them.
Eyes, Penny. He has two of those, too. Focus on the eyes.
Sadly, that strategy didn’t help. His eyes were chips of onyx. Chips of onyx dipped in ink, then encased in obsidian, then daubed with pitch, then thrown into a fathomless pit. At midnight.
“Who are you?” she breathed.
“I’m Gabriel Duke.”
The Gabriel Duke?
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she said out of habit, if only because she could hear her mother tut-tutting all the way from India.
“You shouldn’t be pleased. No one else is.”
No, they weren’t. The papers had exhausted an ocean of ink on this man, who came from unknown origins and now possessed untold influence. Ruthless, said some. Shameless, said others. Sinfully wealthy, agreed all.
They called him the Duke of Ruin.
From somewhere above, Delilah gave a cheeky, almost salacious whistle. The parrot swooped out from beneath the bed hangings and flew all the way across the room, alighting on an unused candle sconce on the opposite wall. Placing herself directly behind Penny’s new, impressively virile neighbor.
Oh, you traitorous bird.
He flinched and ducked as the parrot swept overhead. “What the devil was that?”
“I can explain.”
I just don’t particularly want to.
“It’s a parrot,” she said. “My parrot.”
“Right. And who are you, again?”
“I . . . erm . . .” Her hands couldn’t decide where to be. They merely displayed the panicked desire to be anywhere else.
Water dripped from some hard, slick part of his body, counting out the beats of her mortification.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“I’m Lady Penelope Campion.”
Lady Penelope Campion.
The Lady Penelope Campion?
Gabe tilted his head to one side, shaking the last bit of bathwater from his ear. He could not have heard her correctly. Surely she meant to say she was a servant in the house of Lady Penelope Campion.
“You can’t be Lady Penelope.”
“No. Lady Penelope is a spinster who lives alone with dozens of cats.”
“Not dozens,” she said. “A touch over one dozen at the moment, but that’s only because it’s springtime. Kitten season, you know.”
No, he didn’t know. None of this made any sense whatsoever.
Lady Penelope Campion was the main reason he’d acquired this property. New-money families would pay outrageous amounts to live next door to a lady, even if said lady was an unappealing spinster.
How on earth was this woman a spinster? She was an earl’s daughter, surely possessed of a large dowry. If none of the title-hungry, debt-ridden layabouts in Mayfair had seen fit to propose marriage, simple logic dictated there must be something remarkably off-putting about her. An unbearably grating voice, perhaps. A snaggletooth, or poor personal hygiene.
But she displayed none of those features. She was young and pretty, with no detectable odor. Her teeth were a string of pearls, and she had a voice like sunshine. There was nothing off-putting about her whatsoever. She was . . . on-putting, in every way.
Good God, he was going to sell this house for a bloody fortune.
Assuming the lady wasn’t ruined, of course.
At her level of society, being ruined didn’t take much. Strictly as a random example, she could be ruined by being found alone and scarcely clothed in the bedchamber of the aristocracy’s most detested, and currently most naked, villain.
“You need to leave,” he said. “At once.”
“I can’t. Not before retrieving—”
“Wait here. I’m going to dress, and then I’ll see you home. Discreetly.”
“No argument,” he growled.
Gabe had clawed and climbed his way out of the gutters, using the ruined aristocrats of London as stepping stones along his way. But he hadn’t forgotten where he came from. He’d learned how to talk and walk among people who would think themselves his betters. But that lowborn street urchin still lived within him—including the rough cutpurse voice that had genteel ladies clutching their reticules. When he chose to use that voice, it seldom went unheeded.
Lady Penelope Campion wasn’t paying attention at all.
Her gaze was focused on something behind him, over his shoulder. He instinctively began to turn his head.
“Stop,” she said with perfect calm. “Don’t move.”
He heard a strange flutter, and in the next moment it happened.
A bird landed on his shoulder. A parrot, she’d said? The creature’s toes prickled along his skin. His muscle twitched with the urge to shrug it off.
“No, don’t,” she said. “I’ll come for her.”
Usually, Gabe would balk at taking orders from a lady—or from anyone else. However, this was a decidedly unusual situation.
“Pretty girl,” the bird squawked.
Gabe set his jaw. Do you think I haven’t noticed that, you cursed pigeon with pretensions?
She crept toward him, padding noiselessly over the carpet, step by silent step. And as she came, sweet words fell from her lips like drops of raw honey.
“That’s it, darling,” she murmured.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck lifted.
“Stay . . . right . . . there.”
The hairs on his arms lifted, too.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Just like that.”
Now she had the hairs on his calves involved. Damn it, he had too many hairs. By the end of this they would all be standing at attention.
Along with other parts of him.
“Don’t stir,” she said.
He couldn’t speak for the parrot, but Gabe was doing some stirring. One part of him had a mind of its own, especially when it came to beautiful women in translucent chemises. He hadn’t lain with a woman in some time, but his body hadn’t forgotten how.
He couldn’t help himself. He stole a glance at her face. Just a half-second’s view. Not long enough to pore over every detail of her features. In fact, he didn’t get any further than her lips. Lips as lush as petals, painted in soft, tender pink.
She was so close now. Near enough that he when he breathed, he inhaled a lungful of her scent. She smelled delicious. A faint hunger rose in his chest.
“I know you’re feeling lost. And not a little frightened. You miss her terribly, don’t you? But I’m here, darling. I’m here.”
Her words sent a strange ache spreading from his teeth to his toes. A painful awareness of all his hollow, empty places.
“Come home with me,” she whispered. “And we’ll sort out the rest together.”
He couldn’t take any more of this. “For God’s sake, get the damned thing off me.”
At last, she collected the feathered beast. “There we are.” Cradling it her arms, she carried the parrot to its birdcage and tucked it within.
Gabe exhaled with relief.
“She’d settle more if I covered her cage,” his beautiful intruder said. “I don’t suppose you have a towel?’
He glanced at the linen slung about his hips. “How badly do you want it?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Never mind. I’ll be going.”
“I’m going to walk you.”
“Truly, you needn’t do that. It’s only next door. No more than twenty paces down the street.”
“That’s twenty paces too many.”
Gabe might not operate by polite society’s rules, but he understood them sufficiently to know this situation violated at least seventeen of them. And anything that damaged her reputation would decrease the profit he stood to collect on this house.
Until he sold this property, her worth was intertwined with his.
“You’re no doubt accustomed to having your way, Your Ladyship. But I’ve ruined enough lords, baronets, knights, and gentlemen to fill the whole of Bloom Square.” He arched an eyebrow. “Believe me when I say, you’ve met your match.”