An Uncommon Duke
An Uncommon Duke makes use of one of my favourite romance tropes – the married, but estranged couple who have to overcome their differences and past hurts in order find their way back to each other. New-to-me author Laurie Benson does a good job in the first part of this book of setting up the conflict between the couple and of conveying their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the state of their marriage that neither knows how to mend. But the reasons for their disagreement fall firmly into Big Misunderstanding territory, and the secondary plotline concerning the eponymous duke’s role as head of a kind of protection detail for the Prince Regent starts to overshadow the romance as the story progresses.
Gabriel and Olivia, Duke and Duchess of Winterbourne, have been married for about six years, more than five of them unhappily during which time they have communicated with each other through servants or in writing. The author does not immediately make readers aware of the reasons behind their estrangement, which creates a nice aura of mystery as we wonder what Gabriel could have done that is so terrible as to have caused it. She wisely doesn’t keep that hidden for too long, but when the reason is revealed it does, I will admit, stretch one’s credulity to believe that the couple has allowed this one thing to ruin their happiness for almost five and a half years without any attempt on either side to work things out.
Gabriel has ‘inherited’ his job of protector of the Crown, following in the footsteps of his father, who was determined to protect the English throne from any and all threats. And owing to a mistake in judgement which led to his trusting the wrong person, Gabriel blames himself for the violent death of a colleague and vowed from there on in to live by his father’s mantra of “trust no one.” Hence the fact that six years earlier, he arrived at his wife’s bedside following the birth of their son smelling of another woman’s perfume, and was unable to disclose to an exhausted, highly emotional Olivia the real reason for his being at a brothel while she was in labour.
The conflict in this story thus boils down to a single misunderstanding on her side and a lack of trust on his. In some ways, I can understand Gabriel’s decision; it’s not unreasonable for someone in such a sensitive position not to be able to tell his loved ones about what he does. But to leave things that way for more than five years? I just couldn’t buy it.
Gabriel and Olivia share a house and nothing else, until she realises that she would like another child. It’s difficult to broach the subject of physical intimacy when she hasn’t spoken to her husband in years, but she manages to do so, and is surprised when he agrees that he, too, would like more children.
Their sex life appears to have been a fairly adventurous one, and they have no trouble picking that up where they left off. The author writes the love scenes well, and there is no doubt that the couple has strong chemistry; there are sparks flying between them even when they’re not speaking to each other. I also liked the way in which she has each character realise how little they know about their spouse; about how they spend their time, their friends, their likes and dislikes. Olivia and Gabriel’s marriage was an arranged one, so they didn’t know each other all that well before they married and had only begun the process of discovering each other during the year they were together as a couple. After almost six years, they finally decide to attempt to reconcile, and while they both make some missteps, it seems as though they are on the right track at last.
While all this is going on, there is the sub-plot concerning Gabriel’s investigation into a recent assassination attempt on the Prince Regent. The identity of the villain isn’t hard to guess, and there was one point when I rolled my eyes and thought “oh, no – we’re not going there are we?”, but on the whole, it’s well set up.
Apart from the Big Mis premise, my biggest problem with the book is with the character of Olivia, who often comes across as too quick to judge and too unwilling to listen to good advice. I didn’t really warm to her, although I liked her better in some of the more playful, flirtatious moments with Gabriel. It’s certainly understandable that she’d have become independent given that she had to make herself a life for herself without her husband, and also that she would be angry about it. But as I said at the outset, to have let that anger go on for more than five years without any attempt to work things out smacks of stubbornness to the point of stupidity. Gabriel is not without blame, of course, as he hasn’t made any attempt to reach out to his wife, either, thanks to his trust issues and what seems to have been a blind acceptance of her “don’t come near me again!” edict. But he’s slightly more well-drawn as a character; we get to know him a little better through his interactions with his brother and fellow agents and he’s easier to like as a result.
This is, I believe, Laurie Benson’s second published book, and while I can’t grade it more highly because of the issues I’ve outlined above, her writing is accomplished, she knows how to tell a story, and she certainly has the ability to create some steamy sexual tension between her hero and heroine. Had the story been more about a marriage in trouble – and the reasons for that not so flimsy – I think she’d have had a much stronger book on her hands. While An Uncommon Duke wasn’t an uncommon success, I enjoyed reading it for the most part and I am definitely open to reading more of Ms. Benson’s work in future.