A Duke by Any Other Name
This fourth book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series about the Wentworth family continues with A Duke by Any Other Name, a rather sweet story featuring possibly the grumpiest hero who ever grumped and the woman who engages his attention via a passel of wandering hogs. In typical Burrowes fashion, this is a gently moving story featuring two perfectly nice leads with emotional crosses to bear that should probably keep them apart, but whose chemistry and fascination with each other conspire to make that impossible. I haven’t read a book by Grace Burrowes for a while, and picking up this one served as a nice reminder of the things I enjoy about her work – her distinctive voice, her insight into what makes her characters tick and ability to write strong familial and romantic relationships – without too forceful a reminder of some of the things that can get a bit repetitive if one reads too many of her books in quick succession.
Lady Althea Wentworth, sister of the Duke of Walden, resides at Lynley Vale in Yorkshire, a home gifted to her by her brother when he unexpectedly acceded to the title (book one, My One and Only Duke). A duke’s sister should be taking part in the season and finding a suitable husband, but given her family circumstances – the Wentworths were born into poverty and their father was an abusive drunk – Althea quickly became the prime target of the ton’s cruellest gossips who have ensured she has been all but ostracised from society. Althea is no shrinking violet, but she has had enough of the constant bullying and has instead decided to make her home in Yorkshire, and find herself a husband there. But even that is not going to be easy; the local society’s leading light is Lady Phoebe Philpot, who is every bit as catty as the London ladies, and just as determined to snub Althea and make sure everyone knows her humble origins put her below their notice.
Nathaniel Rothmore, Duke of Rothaven, has a reputation as dark as the large stallion he gallops around the Yorkshire Moors at night. His neighbours have learned to give him a wide berth; he’s abrasive, unwelcoming and sarcastic, he doesn’t go into society, he certainly doesn’t invite others to his home and is all but a recluse, surrounded by ancient family retainers he should really have pensioned off by now and a house and grounds that could do with a bit of TLC. It’s clear early on that his reputation as a black-hearted recluse is one he’s cultivated himself – what isn’t clear, seeing as he’s not a cold man, is why.
The novel opens with Nathaniel discovering that a number of his neighbour’s prize hogs have invaded his orchard. Annoyed, he storms over to Lynley Vale to demand that Lady Althea arrange to have the animals removed immediately, only to find himself plied with tea, cake and the polite but – could it be gently scolding? – conversation of a woman he should absolutely not find intriguing… but definitely does. Her request for help in learning how to deal with the local society on her own terms is surprising – surely, the sister of a duke should have no problem on that score? – but he gives her a few tips on imperiousness anyway – and she agrees to have the pigs removed.
Nathaniel knows he’s asking for trouble by having anything more to do with Althea. He can’t court her, he certainly can’t marry her – and yet he’s drawn to her, sensing that in her, he may have found the companionship and understanding he longs for. But it can’t be, because Nathaniel is living a lie. This information is disclosed early in the book (so isn’t a spoiler, but if you don’t want to know, look away now!) – Nathaniel is not really the Duke of Rothaven. His older brother, Robert – Robbie – is epileptic and was sent away to an asylum when he was little more than a boy. The old duke told Nathaniel Robbie was dead, and he only discovered the truth after his father’s death, by which time he had been invested with the title and taken his place in the House of Lords. He was able to get Robbie away from the asylum and bring him home, but his brother was clearly not capable of assuming his responsibilities, so Nathaniel agreed to continue to fulfil the role of duke until Robbie was able to do so. Five years later, Robbie is much improved, but does not want to take on the responsibilities which are rightfully his. What is Nathaniel to do? Telling the truth will see him convicted of fraud against the Crown and could leave Robbie vulnerable to being locked away again. Nathaniel is stuck between a rock and a hard place and can see no way out. To make things worse, he’s begun to receive letters which indicate someone knows the truth – and he very much fears he is about to be blackmailed.
With so much on his plate, it’s not surprising Nathaniel is so dour. Grace Burrowes is very good at writing these sorts of characters, ones who are thoroughly decent but somewhat bowed by circumstances, and it’s easy to feel for him. His sadness, exhaustion and loneliness are palpable, and his conflicted emotions for Robbie – love, guilt, anger (for him and with him) and frustration – are equally well portrayed. Althea is a lovely heroine, strong and independent, but still haunted by a horrible childhood (there is a brief mention of sexual exploitation, but it’s not detailed) and, in her way, as beaten down as Nathaniel and just as despairing of being able to find someone to share her life with.
A Duke by Any Other Name doesn’t sugar-coat the facts with regard to the way people like Robbie were treated at this period (the author provides an interesting, extensive author’s note on the subject) but doesn’t sensationalise it either. The romance is a sweet, slow-burn and I enjoyed watching the friendship that develops between Althea and Nathaniel blossom into love – and felt their grief and sorrow at the knowledge they couldn’t be together as they both wanted. On the downside however, the blackmail plot line never really goes anywhere (and is wrapped up rather oddly) and although I enjoyed watching the dreadful Phoebe get her comeuppance, the ending is rushed, the sudden influx of the families – Althea’s brothers (and sister-in-law), Nathaniel’s mother – in Yorkshire feeling a tad too convenient and, if I’m honest, there as a way to shoe-horn in some cameo appearances.
But those criticisms aside, A Duke by Any Other Name is a low-angst, enjoyable story laced with the author’s unique brand of warmth and humour. Althea and Nathaniel are sensible, likeable individuals who make an exceptionally well-matched couple, and anyone looking for an undemanding, emotionally satisfying read could do worse than give this one a try.