Home > The Wallflower Wager

The Wallflower Wager
Author: Tessa Dare

Chapter One

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 . . .

“Good girl.”

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?”

“Pretty girl.”

Penny held her candle aloft and peered upward. Delilah perched on the banister on the second-floor landing.

Thank heaven.

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.

“Pretty girl.”

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 . . .

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