A Duke in Need of a Wife
This book’s title – A Duke in Need of a Wife – tells you pretty much all you need to know going into this story (that’s one thing about Harlequin Historical titles – they don’t generally beat about the bush!). It’s pretty standard historical romance fare – an aristocratic, coolly controlled hero meets a somewhat downtrodden young woman whose behaviour isn’t quite as it should be and becomes completely smitten with her in spite of his determination to remain aloof.
The story opens at a disastrous moment. The fireworks display mounted to celebrate the new peace with France has gone badly wrong and the fireworks are going off all over the place, causing the onlookers to panic and a mass stampede as they rush to safety. One bystander, however, is running in the opposite direction; noticing a woman whose skirt has caught fire, Sofia Underwood rushes to her side to help her, arriving at the same time as one of the waiters. He tries to get Sofia to leave but she refuses, staying to comfort the injured woman and covering her with her cloak while the waiter goes to fetch a doctor. Sofia knows she’ll hear no end of complaints from her aunt when she gets home – how she could have ruined her best cloak by acting so irresponsibly? – but Sofia doesn’t care. Well – she does, but complaints about her behaviour are par for the course and she’s become accustomed to them. Life following the drum has ill prepared her for a life among good society.
She is completely puzzled the next day, when the Duke of Theakstone – a man she knows neither in person nor by reputation – comes to call at her aunt and uncle’s house, and is surprised to see that he’s the ‘waiter’ who had helped the injured woman at the fireworks display. Theakstone is abrupt and clearly not interested in making small talk; he asks Sofia to accompany him on a ride in his curricle the following afternoon, telling himself it’s because he didn’t like the way her relatives were so dismissive of her the night before, especially in light of her bravery in rushing to help an injured stranger.
The next day, Theakstone is still asking himself what made him extend the invitation, especially as the retiring, subdued Miss Underwood he’d seen in company with her aunt and uncle was nothing like the brave young woman he’d glimpsed on the night of the display. She’s nothing special, he tells himself; she’s pretty enough, but her manners are a strange mixture of retiring and forward and her tendency to veer away from the subject in conversation frustrates him, yet he’s drawn to her and clearly infatuated, even though he doesn’t realise it.
Still unable to shake off his fascination with Sofia, Theakestone decides to invite her and her guardians to the house party he’s holding at Theakstone Court – to which he’s also invited a number of the most eligible of the year’s crop of debutantes. His decision to marry is not based simply on his desire to do his duty to the title and set up his nursery, but because he recently discovered the existence of his illegitimate daughter, Olivia (Livvy) and wants to provide her with a home and loving family. He’s therefore on the lookout for a woman who can do more than fulfil her duties as his duchess – he wants one who will be a wife and mother first and a duchess second – which is a refreshing change from all those heroes who express their intentions to wed the most well brought-up, well trained and biddable young ladies because they will be the perfect peeress and hostess.
Sofia is an engaging character, even though she’s somewhat stereotypical; an orphan whose upbringing was irregular because she grew up outside England – and as if that wasn’t bad enough, her mother was a catholic. After her father’s death, she was passed around relatives until settling with her aunt and uncle; and grateful to have a home – any home – Sofia worked hard to stifle her naturally adventurous, outgoing nature and now is so repressed that she rarely speaks unless spoken to, and only allows her true self to emerge when she’s walking her dog alone in the woods. Theakstone is also a character-type we’ve seen often before; the son of an unfeeling, stentorian father who hasn’t experienced much in the way of love or affection, he doesn’t believe in love for himself and is far more focused on providing it for his daughter. I appreciated that he was able to see Sofia in a way nobody else did, and how her confidence grew as a result; and it’s clear he loves Livvy and wants the best for her. On the downside however, he can be cold and off-hand with Sofia to the point of hurting her feelings, and Sofia’s tendency to go off at a tangent made her seem a bit scatter-brained at times.
A Duke in Need of a Wife is a well-written take on a familiar trope featuring interesting, though flawed characters, and if you enjoy stories featuring an obliviously head-over-heels hero then it might fit the bill.