Cinderella and the Duke
While I’m certainly not averse to the use of the Cinderella trope, I was actually quite pleased to discover that the title of Cinderella and the Duke is not all that representative of the story contained within the pages of this novel. The characters are slightly older than are normally found in historical romance (he’s just hit forty, she’s thirty), which I appreciated, and our nominal Cinders isn’t so much downtrodden by her horrible family as she has taken upon herself the burden of looking after them all to such an extent that she has resigned herself to not having a life of her own.
Due to a complicated family situation – and to prevent her lovely, eighteen year-old step-sister being sold off in order to pay her guardian’s debts – Rosalind Allen moves herself and her two siblings (brother and aforementioned step-sister) to a small house on a neighbouring estate before sending her sister to London in the charge of her aunt, Lady Glenlochrie, to make her London début. Lady Helena Caldicot (Nell) is a diamond of the first water and the daughter of an earl, so Rosalind dearly hopes that she will make a suitable match which will forever remove her from her guardian’s power.
Out walking one day, Rosalind is accosted by a fine gentleman who has obviously been riding with the hunt – and who makes it clear that he is now interested in hunting down a very different quarry. He corners Rosalind and makes her very nervous, but fortunately is soon joined by three other gentlemen, one of whom diffuses the situation and leaves Rosalind to continue on her way.
Rosalind’s rescuer is Leo Beauchamp, Duke of Cheriton, who prefers, when away from London to travel as Mr. Leo Boyton so as not to find himself knee-deep in ambitious, marriage-minded young ladies thrown at him by their equally ambitious mamas. He has been a widower for a number of years and has three grown-up children – two sons and a daughter, who is about to make her come-out and has come to stay with his cousin, the bastard son of the previous Duke of Cheriton, in the hope that perhaps the man’s long sojourn abroad might have improved their relationship. It hasn’t. He is as unpleasant and competitive as ever and Leo is beginning to regret his visit.
The next day, Leo encounters Rosalind again and introduces himself as Mr. Boyton. She had already made herself known as Mrs. Pryce – having previously assumed a different name in order to protect Nell (again – complicated). Leo can’t deny the strength of the attraction he had experienced on first seeing Rosalind and senses the feeling is mutual. She is a widow (he thinks) and it’s been a long time since he’s felt this sort of instantaneous connection with a woman and thinks that perhaps a dalliance with a lovely widow is just what he needs to lessen his irritation with his smarmy cousin and temper his boredom.
Rosalind is just as strongly drawn to the authoritatively handsome Mr. Boyton, and decides it’s time for her to experience something of life’s pleasures for herself. Having spent almost half of her thirty years raising Freddie and her step-siblings, she has resigned herself to never marrying or having a family of her own, but isn’t going to pass up this chance to make some good memories to take with her as she dwindles into spinsterhood.
A relationship begun in deceit by both parties is naturally not destined to go well, and given that Leo’s late wife’s frequent infidelities have made him suspicious of women and their motives, it’s not long before he jumps to the conclusion that Rosalind has deliberately set out to spring the trap he’s spent years avoiding, and is out to secure herself a position as his duchess. Rosalind is stunned and furious that he could think such a thing – and then deeply hurt that the man with whom she has fallen in love could have treated her so shabbily. But she is not afforded much time to brood upon her situation because a letter from Lady Glenlochrie summons her and Freddie urgently to London and turns her attention to Nell’s situation.
When Rosalind and Leo meet again, Leo is still deeply mistrustful, in spite of the fact that he missed Rosalind dreadfully and has recognised the truth of his feelings for her. But he soon begins to understand the reasons behind her deception about her identity and to realise that he had been too quick to jump to a very unfair conclusion. They gradually begin to regain their earlier closeness, but Rosalind is stubborn and makes some bad judgements of her own when she feels that Leo is trying to organise her life and take her family away from her. It’s perhaps a little extreme, but the author does a good job here of showing that Rosalind knows she is being irrational even as she is protesting the changes going on around her; she has spent so long taking care of others that she finds it difficult to let go and allow Freddie and Nell to live their own lives and make their own decisions and is worried at the prospect of no longer being needed.
Leo’s experience of marriage has made him wary of trusting others and he has built up emotional walls in an attempt to protect himself from experiencing such disillusionment and heartache again. He is sometimes a little high-handed and his belief that Rosalind has set out to trap him is rather contrived, but he is possessed of an insight borne of maturity that is extremely attractive, and his obvious devotion to his family and his willingness to open himself to love again for Rosalind’s sake make him a worthy hero.
The sub-plot concerning Leo’s nasty cousin is perhaps a bit creaky and the Big Misunderstanding – a plot device of which I’m not a fan – is arrived at in too contrived a manner, but overall, Cinderella and the Duke is an enjoyable read featuring a couple of flawed but likeable principals, and gets Janice Preston’s new Beauchamp Betrothals series off to a good start.