A Duke in Disguise
Cat Sebastian returns to Regency London for the second instalment of her Regency Imposters series, A Duke in Disguise, in which an illustrator and a prickly publisher who have been close friends for a decade have to decide if friendship is really enough, or whether it’s worth risking what they have for the possibility of something more. It’s a well-written story with a very strong sense of time and place featuring two engaging and complex principals; there’s a nod or two to the gothic novels popular at the time as well as some shrewd observations about the political situation, the lack of options open to women and the way the lives of well-born ladies were completely controlled by their menfolk.
Verity Plum and her younger brother Nate are joint proprietors of Plum & Company, Printers and Booksellers, which was left to them by their father. Verity is the brains of the outfit in the sense that she takes care of all the practicalities (and then some), while Nathan, who is just twenty, indulges his radical sentiments by writing increasingly seditious polemics which she fears will land him in prison in the not too distant future. Verity and Nate’s good friend, John Ashby – a moderately successful illustrator and engraver – has lodged with them on and off over the past decade, and although he and Verity are completely smitten with each other and have been for years, neither of them is willing to risk crossing the line into a romantic and physical relationship. Verity doesn’t believe she’s cut out for romance in any case; her most recent love affair (with Portia Allenby, who appeared in the previous book, Unmasked by the Marquess) didn’t end particularly well, and she’s not one for dealing with complex emotions. Verity guards her independence and sense of self very jealously, and she’s stretched thin as it is, what with the pieces of herself she gives over to worrying about Nate, and the business, and her friendship with Ash; and if she’s scared of anything, she’s scared of losing herself completely to all the other demands life makes of her.
Verity is desperately trying to prevent Nate landing himself in serious trouble, and with Ash’s help she manages to persuade him to leave England and travel to America to set up in business there. She hates doing it, but recognises it’s the only way to keep his neck out of the noose. Both Verity and Ash feel his loss, but aren’t sure how to comfort each other without crossing their very carefully preserved line, something which is become more and more difficult with each passing day.
The ‘we can’t become lovers because we’ll risk our friendship’ plotline is one that’s often used to create an obstacle in friends-to-lovers stories (and doesn’t always work for me) but Ms. Sebastian makes it work here, showing just how well Verity and Ash know each other and how deeply they care in small but important ways (I loved that Ash always had a spare hairpin or three in his pocket) and imbues their relationship with such visceral longing that it leaps off the page. That said though, Verity’s determination to keep things between her and Ash strictly platonic just seemed to evaporate without much of an explanation.
Ash is a gorgeous beta hero who hides his insecurities behind a veneer of impassivity but who feels deeply. His life has been difficult and filled with loss; he longs for stability and connection, and those longings are the main reasons he is so reluctant to pursue anything other than friendship with Verity, even though he knows she’s as attracted to him as he is to her. After a childhood being passed from pillar to post, fostered by one family only to be passed on after suffering an epileptic seizure, he eventually went to a charity school where one of his schoolmasters recognised his artistic talent and arranged for him to be apprenticed to an engraver. It’s in that capacity that he first makes the acquaintance of Lady Caroline Talbot, who wishes to engage him to illustrate a book of the plants and flowers in her herbarium. Right from his first visit, Ash is struck by a strange sense of familiarity and ‘wrongness’ at the same time… he can’t know that his visits to Arundel House will change his life.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, given the book’s title, for me to talk about what that change is (and it’s in the synopsis) – although Ash isn’t so much a duke in disguise as he is one who has no idea of his true identity! The discovery of his origins is naturally a shock and his instinct is to deny that he is likely the Duke of Arundel’s heir; not only has he not been brought up to it, Verity will want nothing more to do with him should he really be a member of the aristocracy she so despises. But it seems he cannot escape his birthright – and moreover, he can’t abandon Lady Caroline – who is his aunt – to the not-so-tender mercies of her violent, abusive brother, whose murderous intentions were the reasons she sent Ash away into hiding when he was a little boy.
I enjoyed the book overall, even though I had a few niggles with the way things played out. I liked Ash and Verity and the strong connection the author has created between them, and I liked the historical and political background to the story and the cheeky nods to gothic romances – but I wasn’t completely convinced by the way the couple reached their HEA. We’re repeatedly told and shown that Verity absolutely hates the aristocracy and everything it stands for and that she intends never to marry – and yet she’s very easily persuaded to become Ash’s duchess. I also didn’t much care for Ash’s lie by omission; when he accepts he really is the heir to a dukedom, he decides not to tell Verity for a month (and to finally embark on the sexual relationship they both want) and as if that wasn’t enough, when he’s forced to own the truth, he just ups and leaves Verity without really talking to her about anything, instead just assuming that she won’t want to be with him once he’s a duke and that she won’t consider marrying him regardless of his social status. For two people who’ve been friends for a decade and know each other pretty much inside out, and considering Ash’s abandonment issues, that refusal to communicate didn’t make a lot of sense.
The writing is excellent and the principals are refreshingly different; Verity is bisexual (and makes no secret of it), pragmatic and somewhat grouchy, while Ash is more even-tempered and is an utter sweetie (and a virgin to boot). I’ve knocked off a couple of grade points for the inconsistencies I’ve noted, but I nonetheless enjoyed A Duke in Disguise, which is one of the better historical romances I’ve read over the past year or so.