The Duke of Deception
Darcy Burke’s The Duke of Deception is the third book in her current Untouchables series – the gentlemen so named by their ladies because their difference in social station puts the men well above their touch. The hero of this book is not a duke at all, however – the moniker is chosen merely to be alliterative – but he does have a reputation for, if not deceit exactly, then not always being above board.
Edward Bishop, Earl of Sutton, has, over the years, shown interest in a number of eligible young ladies but has never followed through with an offer of marriage. He is no lothario or jilt and genuinely wants a wife, but his family circumstances are difficult and he therefore has to be very careful about his choice. So he has unofficially courted several women, hoping to find one that would meet his exacting criteria – to no avail. This behaviour has not endeared him to the marriage-minded mamas and hopeful papas of the ton, although the real deception he is practicing is something far more serious.
Having witnessed the abuse, both verbal and physical, meted out to her mother by her father over the many years of their marriage, Miss Aquilla Knox is determined never to put herself into a man’s power. She knows that the only value her father places on her is her potential as a bride for some rich, well-connected man, so she has been allowed several London seasons during which to find a suitable husband. For this current season – her fifth – Aquilla is being sponsored by her dear friend, Lady Sattersfield, and can’t help feeling guilty because she has no intention of getting married and plans instead to find a position as a companion. It’s an unequal choice to be sure, especially given that companions were subject to the whims of their employer and could be badly treated – but Aquilla has seen her own mother treated far worse, so her decision makes sense to some degree.
Instead of doing all the things a young lady should do in order to attract a husband, Aquilla does the exact opposite and has earned herself a reputation as a scatterbrained chatterbox, thus ensuring that she has not received a single offer of marriage, a state which she intends to maintain until the end of the Season. Until, that is, she is caught in a rainstorm one evening and has to ask a gentleman for help so she can re-enter the house at which she is a guest. The gentleman duly assists, making sure that Aquilla is not noticed returning to the house. She is grateful for his kindness and his concern for her reputation, and surprised to realise that the gentleman is none other than the Duke of Deception himself – the Earl of Sutton.
Edward – or Ned, as he is known by those close to him – has realised that the latest potential bride on his list is not going to meet his requirements, and knows he is going to endure censure once again when he does not come up to scratch. But Aquilla’s gentle good-humour, her confidence and the flashes of wit she displays – even when soaked through – intrigue and attract him and he starts to wonder whether she might not be what he is looking for.
Aquilla also feels the spark between them, but is determined to adhere to her plan of finding a position rather than a husband. But when her father announces that he has arranged for her to marry Lord Lindsell, a man she dislikes and knows will not treat her kindly, Aquilla is horrified, knowing too well that her father’s decision is based on greed and that she has no chance of changing his mind.
Ned is similarly concerned because he is strongly attracted to Aquilla and had hoped for more time to get to know her. But time is no longer on his side. He knows of Lindsell’s reputation and knows Aquilla dislikes the man, so Ned does the only thing he can think of – the thing he has never done before but desperately wants to do now – and asks her to marry him.
Aquilla and Ned embark upon their marriage with optimism, but each of them is keeping secrets from the other, Ned about the reasons for his frequently aborted courtships and Aquilla about her reasons for not wanting to marry at all. Ned is a truly decent man who is trying to do the best for his family and his best by his new wife, and unfortunately, makes some poor decisions in the belief that his choices will prove to have been the best for everyone in the long run. The thing is, while it’s easy for the reader to see that these decisions are going to cause more problems than they solve, Ned’s desire to do right by everyone is very easy to relate to and his actions actually feel quite realistic. The difficulties Ned’s actions begin to create in his new marriage are compounded by the fact that Aquilla has not yet told him about her upbringing and how it has affected her ability to trust others – especially men. Fortunately, however, Ms. Burke doesn’t drag this out with a long series of misunderstandings – although there is an event about three-quarters of the way through the book which seems overly contrived and which stretched my credulity somewhat.
Otherwise, Duke of Deception is an enjoyable, well-paced story that, while fairly short, is not lacking in depth or insight. Ned and Aquilla are an engaging, well-matched couple – strong, caring and compassionate; and their romance is developed in such a way that it’s easy to believe that they will continue to be happy together long after the book is ended. The relationship between Ned and his brother is often heart-breaking – I teared up at one point – and I could completely sympathise with Ned’s frustration at the way he has been forced to put his life on hold through no fault of his own, and then at his guilt for feeling that way. The detail concerning the treatment of the mentally ill at this time makes an interesting background to the story, and further shows Ned to advantage in his abhorrence of the conditions and treatments endured by those who were institutionalised and his determination to take care of his own.
I haven’t read the previous books – although I will probably pick them up at some point – but while this is the third in a series, and there are cameo appearances by some of the characters who have appeared previously, the novels are loosely connected and can be read as standalones.