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The Wallflower Wager
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0062672150 (ISBN13: 9780062672155)
They call him the Duke of Ruin.
To an undaunted wallflower, 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.
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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.