The Wallflower Wager
Lady Penelope – Penny – Campion has a new neighbor. Penny has been living in London for years, kept company by one deaf old housekeeper and a menagerie of pets. She has a few friends in the area but no man in her life. That is, until her pet parrot flies into the house next door.
Gabriel Duke – known as The Duke of Ruin – has made his living buying up the debt and secrets of England’s nobles and then calling them in. He has a chip on his shoulder – a shoulder which now has a parrot sitting on it thanks to his neighbor, Lady Penelope. He isn’t angry though, because he’s trying his hand at the regency-era version of house flipping, and Penny’s aristocratic status gives his new real estate an excellent address.
Unfortunately, Penny’s family has decided it’s time for her to move back to the countryside where she grew up. For Penny, this means returning to the scene of a traumatic childhood. For Gabriel, it means potentially losing his home’s greatest asset. But all this can be avoided if they take the Wallflower Wager: Penny’s aunt has agreed to help her stay at home in town, if Penny can a) get new clothes, b) get rid of the pets, and c) appear in the society columns. Gabriel and Penny are on a mission.
I’m a Tessa Dare fan and have read a number of her books including both the preceding books in the Girl Meets Duke series: The Duchess Deal (currently my favorite regency) and The Governess Game (if you start with The Wallflower Wager it’s no problem – the books in the series don’t need to be read in order). For me, what makes her books especially enjoyable is that she never forgets that good writing is as important as good romance. There’s nothing worse than a romance in which the hero and heroine can’t hold a conversation and all you can think is PLEASE STOP TALKING AND GO TO BED ALREADY. Gabriel and Penny have no problem holding conversations. Example:
“Every time I speak three words, you look as though you’re going to swoon into my arms.”
“I do not,” Penny objected, knowing very well that she probably did.
“You sigh like a fool, blush like a beet. Your eyes are the worst of it. They turn into
these . . .these pools. Glassy blue pools with man-eating sharks beneath the surface.”
“I hope you’re not planning a career in poetry.”
“For the good of us both, you have to cease gazing at me.”
I also really appreciate that whenever Ms. Dare has the chance to either go for dramatic prose or humor, she goes for humor. There’s an entire scene involving the birth of a baby goat which is midwifed by Gabriel and Ash and Chase (the heroes from the previous books) which could have been full of on-the-nose-prose trying desperately to convince me how wonderful/kind/tender Gabriel is. Instead, Tessa Dare makes it a hilarious scene of three grown men trying not to freak out and arguing over who has the thinnest arm to reach up the poor goat’s birth canal. Additionally, Dare is FULL of surprises. Not only does she always go for humor, but she also always goes for originality. There’s an entire subplot involving Gabriel’s housekeeper, who seems to have fallen out of a gothic novel, that’s a perfect example. If there is a sexy, witty, funny and/or original way to look at or say something, Tessa Dare is going to find it, and it grounds the story and makes it feel vivid and genuine.
As for our hero and heroine. . . Penelope originally irritated me a little, living in her house with all her nutty creatures (she names her hens after King Lear’s daughters). At first, I saw her as the sort of eccentric heiress that one can still find in any metropolis, surrounded by her spoiled animals. However, there’s much more to her behavior than that (more on that later). As for Gabriel, he grew up as a “a street urchin”. His life story is brutal, but despite the references to his “instinctive, defensive anger that had become as natural to him as breathing”, he is not a scary hero. He’s a good guy and I enjoyed the portrayal of their attraction to each other. The story itself feels flirty – the banter, the inner monologues, the PoVs, everything. Penny informs Gabriel after initiating their first kiss: “I was grateful for your help with Bixby, and more than a little overwhelmed by that display of brute strength. All that flexing.” (That said, the sex scenes aren’t particularly memorable, which was a bit of a letdown.)
A big part of what kept this book from getting a higher recommending grade was that in the last third, Tessa Dare drops a bombshell about Penny’s past, and the story shifts from focusing on the romance and becomes more about Penny reckoning with her past. Without going into excessive spoiler territory, suffice to say that she is a sexual abuse survivor. Ms. Dare handles the subject with sensitivity; I just wish that she had woven more of this part of the story in earlier on, so it didn’t weigh so heavily on the last section. I ended the book feeling as though I had just finished a story about women’s empowerment rather than one about two people falling in love.
Overall, if you’re looking for a romance that never tries to rest on its sexual laurels and short change you on the writing, The Wallflower Wager is a safe bet. I’d even be willing to wager that you won’t make it to the end without highlighting at least one passage that makes you just laugh, smile, or think to yourself: I’d never considered it that way, but she is totally right.