This was not the book I was going to read next, but after the bummer of Royal Holiday I knew I needed a sure thing and a Tessa Dare book will always be a book that I quite enjoy. I pulled up the one I’d been saving, book three in the Girl Meets Duke series, and spent the afternoon and evening absorbed in Dare’s kooky version of Regency England. I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly.
The Wallflower Wager is good. Its easily four stars possibly sneaking into four and a half star good (although I still think the first in the series The Duchess Deal is my favorite of these books, but only a reread would tell me for sure). The Wallflower Wager focuses on Lady Penelope Campion and Gabriel Duke, known around the ton as the Duke of Ruin for the way he has amassed his fortune. Penelope has spent the best part of ten years as a reclusive wallflower, but the impending arrival of her brother to return her to the family estate – a place she firmly does not want to return to – causes her to strike a deal (or a wager as Aunt Caroline puts it) that she will make a concerted effort to get out there into society in an attempt to get Aunt Caroline to side with her so she may remain living on her own in the city. Gabriel is renovating the house next door in order to resell it at a large profit but part of his profit margin requires the presence of a Lady as a neighbor. He decides to help Penny live up to her portion of the wager, for his own reasons, but their physical attraction to each other keeps rearing its ugly head into their plans.
Dare’s cleverness in wordplay and character development, and a bit of poking at modern social commentary are on full display. The interactions between Penny and Gabriel as they begin and continue their sexual relationship are focused on consent and equity. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. What I appreciated most about this pairing is that Gabriel was concerned with not letting Penny be ruined, not because he thought it mattered, but that he knew it mattered to the society she was a part of, he had made a rule for himself years before to never ruin a woman and this was a believable component of the way they negotiate their growing relationship, particularly as it grows from lust to love.
Blessedly there is no instalove, instead we follow along with two people in lust with one another who act on it. As they continue to spend time together both in and out of bed their deeper emotions build, and they grow to know each other for who they are at their core. Gabriel always sees Penny’s courage and strength, even when her friends who love her dearly infantilize and underestimate her. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life and puts his actions where his words are. Until he has an alpha meltdown in the final part of the book, but even as the reader you are with him as he takes on Penny’s abuser (this book does come with a content advisory for heroine with a history of child sexual abuse, confronting her abuser, and a hero with a history of abandonment and extreme poverty in childhood).
Even with the heaviness that the content advisory is covering, there’s still Dare’s patented humor and ridiculous pets here. One of which is goat whom Penny swears is not pregnant (she’s not that kind of girl) and Gabriel is proven right in a particularly amusing scene involving all three very manly heroes from the series trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labor.
This book also expertly weaves in the fourth and final installment’s introduction as Nicola spots her fiancé that none of her friends knew about at the ball at the end, and the epilogue refers to her married with children. Book four The Bride Bet is set to publish this summer and I’m looking forward to it immensely.