Desert Isle Keeper
Duke of Pleasure
Amazingly, we’ve reached the eleventh of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane books, and the author shows no sign of running out of steam! Duke of Pleasure is another strong addition to the series, a beautifully-written, well-paced story that achieves just the right balance between romance and action; and which is, in part, a charming Cinderella-type story that sees everyone’s favourite street-urchin – Alf – get her man in the shape of the formidable Hugh Fitzroy, Duke of Kyle.
Alf has made brief appearances in a number of books in the series, most prominently in the previous one (Duke of Sin) in which she was employed by the Duke of Montgomery as a spy/informant. She lives in the stews of St. Giles and is ideally placed to ferret out information about the many nefarious deeds that are cooked up in its numerous rookeries and gin palaces and has been instrumental in helping our heroes to uncover and foil a number of evil schemes. Not many of those heroes, however, know that Alf is anything other than the boy on the edge of manhood she pretends to be. Left on the streets of St. Giles when she was just five years old, Alf was fortunate to be taken under the wing of a lad called Ned, who looked after her and told her that it would be safest for her to live as a boy; as a girl she would be almost certain to end up working on her back, and sooner rather than later given the proclivities of some of the visitors to the district’s brothels. Now aged twenty-one, Alf continues to pass as a boy and has spent so many years living as one that it’s practically impossible for her to imagine doing otherwise – or even wanting to.
Recently, however, in addition to her daytime disguise, Alf has taken on another identity – that of the Ghost of St. Giles, the masked crusader who leaps from rooftop to rooftop, dropping to the streets to lend assistance – usually armed assistance – to those in danger. Quick-witted, agile and skilled with her blades, one night she leaps into the fray to aid a single man being attacked by a large group, a man she has met once before when she was Montgomery’s employ and who, at that time, wanted her to work against him. That doesn’t stop Alf though, and she helps the man to fend off his attackers, pausing only to pull him to her for a kiss before running off into the night.
Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle (a bastard son of the King, George II) is pretty sure who is out for his blood – a dangerous group of men who term themselves the Lords of Chaos, a select club that indulges its members’ unnatural tastes for satanic rites, blood sacrifice and many other degenerate practices. In the previous book, Kyle was tasked with discovering the identities of the Lords and bringing them down – but even though the man believed to be its leader – the Duke of Dymore – is now dead, it seems the Lords are thriving and are as determined to stop Kyle as he is to hunt them down. Fighting for his life, he is amazed at the sight of the slight figure coming to his aid – and even more surprised to discover that the Ghost of St. Giles is a woman.
The story of the duke and the street-urchin may be highly implausible, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. Kyle is an upstanding, honourable man who has cultivated the art of self-control to a high degree. His marriage to a society beauty with whom he was head-over-heels in love was a tempestuous one, founded on an explosive passion which ultimately led to disappointment and disaster. He adores his two young sons and deeply regrets that he missed so much of their early childhoods because he couldn’t face living with his difficult (now deceased) wife. As a result, he is mistrustful of strong feelings and convinced that giving into them again will only lead to pain and sorrow. Yet there’s something about Alf – her resilience, her courage and her free-spirited nature – that calls to him and begins to turn attraction into something more.
Alf has become so used to her life as a boy that the idea of living as a woman is thoroughly alien to her. She can’t imagine feeling comfortable or safe as anything else, so when Hugh asks her to accompany him to a society event – as a woman – in order to help him to look for evidence against the Lords, her initial reaction is to refuse. But when she realises that there really is no-one else able to do what she can, she musters her courage and agrees, willing to set aside her own fears to help the man she has come to love.
It’s the working relationship between the couple that does much to bridge the immense social gap between them. Hugh may be a duke, but he respects people for who they are and what they can do; and nowhere in the book is this more apparent than the couple of times where he gives Alf (knowing her to be a woman) a dangerous task perform, fully confident that she is up to it. Of course, he struggles against his instinct to protect her, but he also knows she’s capable and trusts her to get the job done – and I loved that about him.
Ms. Hoyt does a wonderful job in showing the depth of Hugh’s love for his two sons, who are both written in such a way as to come across as actual children and not just cutesy moppet plot devices. Hugh’s confusion at the way that his elder boy – Kit – seems so angry at him all the time is palpable, and to see this big, powerful, confident man at a loss as to how to build a relationship with these little boys makes for some moments of true poignancy in the story.
The author also delivers a perfectly lovely romance full of passion, tenderness, and understanding, all ingredients that bring readers flocking to her books time after time. The chemistry between Alf and Kyle leaps off the page, the love scenes are a delicious mix of sweet, sexy and earthy and there’s a real sense of equality to their relationship that allows it to work, in spite of their difference in station. We all love a good rags-to-riches story once in a while, don’t we?
Ms. Hoyt’s writing is lush and wonderfully intelligent, her characterisation is extremely strong throughout, and as ever, the descriptions of the less salubrious areas of London are so evocative as to put the reader in the middle of those dank, smelly and dangerous streets! A passionate romance wrapped around a thrilling suspense story, Duke of Pleasure really is a pleasure and I devoured it in a couple of sittings. Fans of historical romance shouldn’t miss it.