Desert Isle Keeper
Between the Devil and the Duke
Kelly Bowen is one of the best of the bunch of new authors of historical romance to have emerged in the last couple of years, and she continues to show herself more than deserving of the praise her novels have received. I’ve reviewed a few and rated them highly, impressed by her ability to craft strong plotlines and characters, and to imbue her dialogue with unforced humour and realism. Best of all, she writes a strong, well-developed romance that sizzles with sexual tension while also showing the protagonists becoming emotionally intimate. Her current Season for Scandal series makes use of an unusual premise, and, in the last two books (Duke of My Heart and A Duke to Remember) she’s allowed her heroines to positively shine as independent, intelligent women who make their own rules while continuing to live within the bounds set by society. Not for Ms. Bowen the curl-tossing, foot-stamping, annoying “feisty” heroine; no, her ladies are clever, pragmatic, determined, and – when called for – devious; qualities which make them irresistibly attractive to their heroes, men who are secure enough in their masculinity to be able to appreciate their unique talents.
In Between the Devil and the Duke, the third book in the series, we meet Lady Angelique Archer, a young woman carrying the weight of her family’s responsibilities on her slim shoulders. Her father, the Marquess of Hutton, died recently in a carriage accident, but left very little money to his four children; and her older brother, the new marquess, is very quickly spending what little there is on drink, women, gambling and dodgy investments. Angelique is at her wit’s end. Her younger twin brothers risk being kicked out of Harrow if she can’t find the money to pay their fees; the household bills are mounting and she has already sold everything of value that isn’t nailed down. Her brother shows no sign of relinquishing his dissolute – and expensive – lifestyle, so it’s up to her to find a solution. While she’s very beautiful, Angelique never “took” during her one season, acquiring herself a reputation as The Marble Maiden owing to her inability to dance or make small talk or display any of the accomplishments required of a débutante. So given that reputation and that her current state of impoverishment is unlikely to remain a secret for long, marrying money is not an option. Not that she wants to sell herself off to the highest bidder anyway. An almost-betrothal to one of her brother’s closest friends, was a near escape and it’s one she has no wish to repeat.
We met Alexander Lavoie in Duke of My Heart, and learned that he is a partner in Chagarre and Associates, the business run by Ivory Moore (now Duchess of Alderidge), which is one of the best kept secrets in London. The firm specialises in fixing the seemingly disastrous and making scandal disappear, and is discreet, efficient and very expensive. Alex is also the proprietor of a highly successful gaming establishment, and thus very well placed to learn the sorts of secrets in which the firm trades. Rumoured to have been both a spy and an assassin, he is charming, clever, manipulative, and dangerously sexy – but completely unprepared for the sudden fascination he experiences for the anonymous woman playing quietly at the vingt-et-un table who wins a lot more than she loses.
She hasn’t gone unnoticed by him on her previous visits, but on this particular night, she is on the receiving end of some unwelcome attention from one of the men at her table, so Alex steps in to politely but firmly encourage him to desist. Alex is already curious about her – she obviously knows what she’s doing at the card table, but isn’t blatant about it; she loses small amounts, wins large ones and knows how to use her physical assets to distract a man and put him off his game.
When Alex realises that behind Angelique’s lovely exterior lies a brilliant mathematical mind, he offers her a job. He can tell that she’s not at his club for fun or to indulge in the thrill of the forbidden; she needs the money, but he doesn’t know why, and is determined to ferret out the truth. He knows a woman in trouble when he sees one; and when he encounters her brother and two of his inebriated friends, he begins to have an inkling of its source.
The story that follows is well-plotted and nicely paced, as Alex and Angelique – with the help of Ivory and Max – start to piece together the truth concerning the late marquess’ finances, uncovering a trail of smuggling, blackmail and murder. It’s an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story, and I was completely caught up in it and anxious to know what was going to happen next.
The romance is very well done, too. The sparks fly between Angelique and Alex right from the start; the tension between them at their first meeting is thick enough to be cut with a knife and the connection between them is intense. I love a smitten hero in a romance, and there’s no doubt that Alex is well and truly bowled over by Angelique – but what I loved even more is that while he’s undoubtedly physically attracted to her, he’s just as wowed by her mental acuity. Following on from his offer of employment, Angelique presents him with a proposal as to how she can maximise the profits from her vingt-et-un table – and for Alex, it’s a real coup de foudre; he is “rather afraid he had just fallen in love.”
Angelique is just as strongly attracted to Alex, although her experience with the men in her life who were supposed to look after her and didn’t – her father, her brother – makes her understandably cautious about trusting anyone but herself. She tries to keep Alex out, but his kindness and his persistence gradually break down her barriers until she realises she can trust him absolutely. They are a very well-matched couple, not just mentally, but in the way they are able to provide something the other has been missing. Alex encourages Angelique to be herself in a way that nobody else ever has and I really enjoyed watching her self-confidence blossom as the result of his love and acceptance; and Alex, who has preferred to remain aloof and never shared much of himself with anyone, finds the sort of contentment with Angelique that he’d never expected to feel.
Between the Devil and the Duke is a really enjoyable story, and I loved every minute of it. The story is engrossing, the characterisation is excellent and the love scenes are sensual and romantic. Kelly Bowen has further cemented her place as one of the best of the historical romance authors currently writing, and I’m eagerly looking forward to her next book.