At the Duke's Wedding
At the Duke’s Wedding is a set of linked novellas, each one written by a well-known author in the world of historical romance.
Each of the stories takes place in and around the two weeks leading up to the wedding of the eponymous Duke, and one of the things I particularly liked was the way in which each of the stories gives us glimpses here and there of the protagonists and events featured in the others, and how their actions are seen by the other characters.
I confess to having a favourite among the four, but I’ll talk about them in the order in which they appear.
In That Rogue Jack (Grade: B) by Maya Rodale, our hero is Lord Jack Willoughby, a man so handsome and raffishly charming that he has inspired a brand of smelling salts! (Named after him because of the propensity toward swooning of the women on the receiving end of his gorgeous smile!). The trouble with Jack is that while he is far from stupid, he is easily distracted and well-known to have a very limited attention span – is he the first Regency hero to suffer from ADHD? – and as such, the Duke’s decision to entrust Jack with the transportation of the family wedding ring from London to Dorset is not thought to be a particularly wise one.
Miss Henrietta Black has known Jack since their younger days, and now resides at Kingstag Castle as companion to the elderly and eccentric Lady Sophronia. The soon-to-be dowager Duchess asks Henrietta to retrieve the ring and deliver it to her as soon as may be; a prospect which makes Henrietta’s heart sink. Knowing Jack as she does, she is sure something will have happened to the ring and she is going to have to be the one to bear the bad tidings.
Despite his good-looks, Jack is not vain. He knows he’s devastating, but deep-down wants to be good at something other than being gorgeous. It’s also clear that, in spite of his reputation for air-headedness, when Jack puts his mind to something, he can determinedly and single-mindedly pursue his goal. It’s also obvious from the outset that Hen (as Jack calls her) is more than fond of him, even though she is well aware of his shortcomings; and that although Jack thinks highly of her, he’s never really thought of her as “wooing material”. But he suddenly finds himself desirous of her good opinion – and more; and given that he has, in fact, misplaced the ring, the two are thrown together in search of it … and from there things progress as one might expect. The sexual tension between them is skilfully built and I loved their bickering and teasing as they became partners-in-crime through their search for the ring. Most importantly, Jack’s affection for Hen is shown to be genuine and deep-rooted as is the fact that her level-headedness makes her the perfect foil for him.
That Rogue Jack is the shortest of the four stories, and set the tone nicely for the anthology as a whole. I particularly enjoyed the establishment of the impromptu “gentlemen’s club” in the stables, as the men at the party used the excuse of viewing Jack’s famous phaeton – named Hippolyta – as a way of escaping the ladies! It starts out with a couple of them sneaking out a bottle of brandy, and before long, there are comfy chairs, card tables and a well-stocked bar out there!
My favourite of the four is the second story, by Miranda Neville – P.S – I love You (Grade: A-), which is loosely based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. I’m rather a fan of epistolary romances, so the premise of this one, where the hero and heroine begin their relationship by getting to know each other through letters was one that attracted me immediately.
Frank Newnham and his cousin Christian, Lord Bruton, are both members of the Household Cavalry. Frank is handsome, carefree and popular with both sexes. Women find him attractive, men find him good company, a good sportsman and a thoroughly decent chap, and he is universally liked. By contrast, Christian is rather intimidating and aloof, his features marred by an ugly scar running the length of one cheek about which he is particularly sensitive.
Despite his popularity with the ladies, Frank has never been a real ladies’ man and when he tells Christian that he has fallen in love and received permission to write to the lady of his choice, he finds himself unable to think of a single thing to say to her. Knowing of Christian’s love of poetry and his greater skill with the written word, Frank persuades his cousin to help him; and Christian, treating it as somewhat of a joke, duly dictates the first letter.
Letters are exchanged regularly and their tone grows increasingly intimate until such time as Christian realises that what he is doing is no longer a joke and that he is in danger of falling in love with the lady himself.
He and Frank are distantly related to the Duke of Wessex and have been invited to the latter’s wedding; as has Miss Rosanne Lacy, who resides in Dorsetshire with her family. Rosanne and Frank are excited at the thought of seeing each other once again, and Frank hopes to secure her hand before the end of the house party.
Miss Lacy is intelligent, well-read and witty – and when they meet, Frank is tongue-tied once more. He begs Christian to help him again – but now he has had the opportunity to meet and converse with Rosanne, Christian realises the damage has been done: he is in love with his cousin’s intended. He is filled with guilt at his part in the deception, realising not only that he has behaved badly, but that Roseanne will be miserable should she marry Frank – and worse, he can’t do a thing about it.
Fortunately for all of them, however, Roseanne is a very intelligent young woman and soon realises that all is not as it seems. She is alarmed at the fact she is finding herself drawn much more to the dark and brooding Lord Bruton than to his cousin, and is naturally furious when she realises she has been deceived. But she does not allow her anger to prevent her from acknowledging that while the means may have been somewhat questionable, the deception has actually saved her from making a huge mistake – and once she has calmed down, she decides to go after the man she truly wants, knowing his sense of honour will not allow him to come to her.
I loved the way this romance was developed, how the letters between Roseanne and Christian became gradually more personal and deeply affectionate. Their regard for each other shone through their words and I felt that here was a couple that was truly meant to be.
If I were ranking all the stories, then the next one, When I Met My Duchess (Grade: B+, by Caroline Linden) would be my second-favourite. Up until this point, we haven’t seen much of Gareth, Duke of Wessex or his intended bride, the lovely Miss Helen Grey. Gareth has chosen his future duchess very carefully and to his mind, Helen Grey embodies all the qualities required. She is beautiful, well-mannered, well-bred, has good taste and carries herself well. She is eminently suitable, and having decided he wanted to marry her, he wasted no time in sending his secretary to propose to her.
How could a girl resist such a romantic overture?
Or in Helen’s case, how could she possibly resist the blandishments of her cash-strapped, yet spendthrift parents, to marry a wealthy duke whose money will end all their financial worries?
It’s immediately obvious to the reader that that is Helen’s principal motivation for agreeing to the marriage, because from the moment we meet her, Helen is reserved in public and miserable in private. As well as her parents, she has been accompanied by her widowed sister, Mrs Cleopatra Burrows, whose presence is merely tolerated by their father because she is there at Helen’s request. Cleo eloped at seventeen with a young man who was in “trade”, and her parents had as little to do with her from that point – despite the fact that the money she was making from a successful business was keeping them out of debt.
Gareth has never been troubled by strong emotions, and is happy to keep it that way. But the minute he sets eyes on Cleo, he experiences a real coup de foudre and finds himself unable to stop himself from thinking about her or seeking her out.
I thought the relationships in this story were well written, particularly that between Helen and Cleo and between Cleo and her parents. That’s not to say the latter is at all pleasant – it isn’t – but the degree to which the Greys disdain their independent and somewhat free-spirited daughter, despite all she does for them is gut-wrenching to read.
Gareth makes for a very attractive hero as he struggles to reconcile own desires with what he owes to the dukedom and with his sense of honour. He and Cleo are obviously as perfect for each other as he and Helen are not, but he can see no way out of marrying her and making them both miserable – until Helen finally acts in line with her own desires and sets him and Cleo free to do as they both wish. The eagle-eyed reader will have spotted a tiny clue as to the way the wind is blowing very early on in the first chapter, so can be assured that Helen is going to get her HEA, too.
The final story seems rather an odd choice as something to include in an anthology of Regency romances. How Angela Got Her Rogue Back (Grade: B-, by Katharine Ashe) is a time-travel romance in which a 21st century American historian travels back to the 19th century in order to solve a mystery and, in the process, help a gorgeous earl to prevent the ruin of his family.
I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who and I love a bit of sci-fi. But I prefer to keep my time-travel stories separate from my romances, so this was the first time I’ve actually read a time-travel romance… and I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to read another one. I know reading historical romances often requires a degree of suspension of disbelief, but I’m not sure I can suspend it enough for the implausibilities inherent in the romance and the time travel. Add in that this particular story involves the heroine changing history, or even, as she says herself making it – and my head started spinning with all the paradoxical ideas that immediately sprang to mind. (That’s another thing about being a Doctor Who fan – most of us have spent a fair bit of time pondering paradoxes!)
The idea that Angela could pass herself off easily as a guest at the house party, and convince Trent so easily that she wasn’t mad but was from the twenty-first century were some of those credulity-stretching elements I couldn’t reconcile myself to. Having said that though, I did like the fact that Angela was able to express some of those things that we must all think at times about all those impossibly handsome, incredibly muscled, superbly well-endowed historical heroes we all love to read about ;-)
For me, this was the least successful of the stories in the anthology. It was well written, and the conclusion was definitely emotionally satisfying, but it seemed like the cuckoo in the nest when set against the other stories in the collection.
I think that the shorter format worked very well for each of the stories in the anthology, as I felt it led the characters to act in a far more realistic manner than they may have done in a full-length novel. For example, had Roseanne and Bruton’s story been novel length, I suspect that there could have been a much more drawn out period of “How could he have deceived me like that – I hate him!”, and other misunderstandings before the couple got their HEA; whereas I think that as it is, Roseanne’s anger, followed by her rational consideration and realisation that whatever the means, she has actually found the love of her life – felt much more convincing and true to her character. I suspect there was also the potential for a lot more angst in the third story, with Gareth and Cleo agonising over the impropriety of their relationship, but again, I think that the story works very well as it is and doesn’t need to be any longer.
To sum up; At the Duke’s Wedding is a very enjoyable collection of well-written romances that can be read individually or at one go, as the mood strikes, and I have no hesitation in heartily recommending it.