The Duke's Unexpected Bride
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, not very much about how the two principals in The Duke’s Unexpected Bride come to find themselves betrothed felt appropriate to their stations in life and/or the historical setting of the book. Ladies didn’t run amok unchaperoned in London, and dukes didn’t volunteer for the job without any prior introduction or connection to the lady in question. Yet even though the setup felt slightly ridiculous, and our heroine was not quite my cup of tea when we first met her, I was nevertheless charmed by this romance and impressed with how Ms. Temple developed and nurtured this story to a very satisfying conclusion. Opposites, in temperament and station, attract in this charming and entertaining tale.
Sophie Trevelyan is in London to visit her Aunt Minnie, a wealthy recluse. Despite the complete lack of attention she receives from her aunt and the absence of anything much to do, Sophie is happy to be there and away from her large and busy family. She’s also determined to outlast her awful cousin Arthur who managed to stay for two weeks before being sent packing – the longest visit with Aunt Minnie yet.
On the afternoon we meet her, Sophie has decided the key to beating her cousin’s two-week-record is Aunt Minnie’s beloved and spoiled pug, Marmaduke – or Duke’. But her attempts at getting the hefty hound to take a bit of exercise for end badly when his new-found love of chasing birds sees him colliding with a well-to-do couple in his path.
As Sophie breathlessly explains the circumstances of the dog’s escape, who she is and why she’s running about unchaperoned in the garden, Max, Duke of Harcourt is amused by the story but dismayed by her behavior. Though her speech is amusing and she’s charming, they’re strangers, and her inappropriate oversharing strikes him as a bit peculiar. When she finally turns to go, he returns his attention to his sister and a discussion about his marriage prospects.
Over the course of the next few days, Max and Sophie continue to randomly find themselves in the same place at the same time, and when they aren’t running into one another, they’re thinking about each other. When Max spots her alone once again and then Sophie asks him if she’s heading in the right direction to reach the Royal Academy, Max can barely contain himself. He noticed her artistic talent whilst watching her sketch on one of their impromptu rendezvous, but although he understands her desire to attend the Summer Exhibition, he can’t help admonishing her for thinking to go there alone without a chaperone or a maid – and with her dog! It just isn’t done. Before he quite knows what he’s doing (this happens a lot when he’s with Sophie), Max offers to escort her to the Academy. Sophie demurs but Max won’t be gainsaid.
The afternoon at the Royal Academy is the first-time Max and Sophie spend any extended time together, and we also meet secondary characters who play pivotal parts in the evolution of their relationship from mere acquaintances (who secretly daydream about each other) to romantic couple. Their conversation goes from slightly awkward (Max isn’t sure how to introduce her), to mutually entertaining, and it’s interesting to watch their relationship make the same progression. Sophie, despite her impulsive behavior and often inappropriate conversation, surprises Max with her intelligence. As the visit progresses, Sophie discovers her Mr. Harcourt is actually a duke, and that he has a good eye for art. But the afternoon ends on a bit on a bitter note after Sophie slips away and Max discovers her in conversation with an artist, Lord Wivenhoe. When Max interrupts them, it’s quickly apparent the men have a history and that they don’t like each other. Lord Wivenhoe shamelessly flirts with Sophie, Max warns him to watch his behavior and Sophie is increasingly uncomfortable. After a final sharp exchange, Max and Sophie finally depart – but not before Wivenhoe promises to stop by Aunt Minnie’s for a visit and Max acknowledges he not only doesn’t like the idea, but that he’s jealous.
Lord Wivenhoe’s pursuit of Sophie is the catalyst for the second half of the story, wherein Max surprises himself (and everyone else) by proposing to her. Sophie knows there’s bad blood between the two men, and has her own reasons for disliking Wivenhoe, but she’s thrilled at Max’s offer, which is something she’d not dared dream of. But Max isn’t quite sure what he feels. Seeing Wivenhoe with Sophie led to his impulsive offer, but after a past disastrous engagement to a similarly spirited and impulsive girl, he isn’t sure he hasn’t made another mistake. Though he’s attracted to Sophie, he hoped to find a more suitable wife this time around, and Sophie doesn’t meet any of his criteria. Nevertheless, he can’t help the attraction he feels towards her and despite his doubts about their engagement, he can’t keep his hands off her. When Sophie proves to be an eager and enthusiastic partner, these two get into all sorts of sexy shenanigans whenever they’re left alone (ALL THE TIME). Max keeps reminding himself to keep his hands to himself, and not to fall in love with her but… well, oops. He’s already fallen. Hard.
The second half of The Duke’s Unexpected Bride is a journey of discovery for both our principals, and Ms. Temple does a nice job flipping the opposites attract trope on its head. Initially, Sophie is an oversharing, slightly peculiar girl from the countryside. I wasn’t crazy about how Ms. Temple tried to push her quirkiness (it’s why I disliked her early on), but I did like Sophie’s self-confidence and self-awareness. She knows her shortcomings and doesn’t apologize for them. On the flip side, when we meet Max, he’s a paragon among men – handsome, urbane, slightly starchy and oh, so correct a duke. But by the conclusion of the book, Sophie’s emotional intelligence and maturity, and her honest affection for Max rise to the fore – helping her navigate through their relationship. It’s a pleasure to watch her teach Max a lesson (or two) about love and life. Max finally gives in to his attraction and love for Sophie, but more importantly, he embraces his new awareness that he loves her because she’s different. These two are still complete opposites, but it’s a dynamic change – as the relationship evolves, Sophie takes the lead and Max is content to follow. I liked the development of these characters and their relationship, but I did struggle early on to reconcile their early characterizations with their behavior – we’re made to believe Max is a starchy, rule following duke, but it’s awfully convenient how often he breaks his own rules and finds himself alone with Sophie; and Sophie, country bumpkin, transforms into a sexually confident seductress.
Though I haven’t detailed them here, there are several plot lines running concurrent to the love story that help explain how Max became the man he is when Sophie first meets him. Ms. Temple also throws in a final plot twist that borders on overkill, but she also manages to somewhat redeem a hated character in the same sequence, so I can forgive her. The Duke’s Unexpected Bride is romantic and entertaining, and it grew on me as it unfolded. I’ve enjoyed both books by Lara Temple books I’ve read this year; I’m still waiting for her to knock my socks off – but based on this one, I think it’s just a matter of time.