Desert Isle Keeper
Duchess by Design
Maya Rodale opens up her new series set in Gilded Age New York with Duchess by Design.
Brandon Alexander Fiennes, the brand-new Duke of Kingston, has inherited an impoverished estate and has no idea what to do about it. He desperately wants to restore Lyon House to its former glory, but with his tenants suffering, the roof leaking, his fashion-obsessed mother demanding more money and one sister threatening to elope for love and the other having rejected an elderly nobleman, he can’t find the money. It’s his best friend and cousin, Freddie, Lord Hewitt, who suggests he enter a marriage of convenience that will solve his money problems, and thus they take off to go fortune-hunting in America.
Miss Adeline Black is a businesslike, fashion-conscious seamstress who sees clothing as a woman’s sole means of independence and conveyance of opinion. She dreams of becoming a dressmaker with her own shop, but in the meantime, she works for Madame Chalfont’s dressmaking establishment, attending fittings and applying fine details, hoping to ask clients if they’d rather use Adeline’s more modern designs instead of Madame Chalfont’s old fashioned ones.
When Adeline literally bumps into Brandon in the elevator of the hotel where she has an important meeting scheduled, she takes closer notice of his fashion sense than his blandishments, and brushes him off to get to her meeting – and he falls in love at first sight with her while presuming her to be one of the upper-class ladies who reside at the hotel. The last thing Adeline wants is to settle into happy, blissful domesticity with anyone – and she doesn’t trust money-seeking Brandon not to simply discard her after he’s had his fun. But while considering his offer to take a stroll in Central Park with him, she glimpses the front page of the society rags so beloved by her employer – and realizes that if she’s seen with a duke, her fashions will be reported about in all of the newspapers. It’s the opportunity to show off her more daring ideas, and gain the free publicity she’s been looking for, so she corners her fellow shop-girl Rose to pose as her companion and proceeds to pretend to riches.
Brandon and Adeline realize they’re of opposing ideals right from the start – she’s sharp-tongued and independent of mind, and unafraid to contradict him, he’s old-fashioned and clinging to the ways of his ancestors. When Adeline bumps into Brandon at the home of her disgraced but upper-crust new client Harriet Burnett, both of their pretensions die away – and Adeline is later fired for falsely-presumed impropriety with the Duke. Soon she finds herself swept up in a women’s labor movement organized by the Ladies of Liberty, which provides her with the money necessary to finally open her own shop. When Brandon finds her, he desperately wants to see her again, and ends up employing her to guide him about New York society to help him find a suitable bride. She agrees – again, in order to show off her fashions. Soon she’s drowning in orders for her pocket-bearing dresses, and Brandon is courting the virginal Miss Van Allen, an heiress whose money will fix all his problems. But Brandon and Adeline still ache for one another. Can they resist temptation? Will Brandon find a solution to his money worries without strip-mining the land around his beloved home and displacing his tenants? And can Adeline’s business-minded pursuits ever make way for real love?
Duchess by Design boasts a lot of elements I utterly adore in historicals. Women who are strong and smart and not just because they say so? Yes please. Heroes who are self-sacrificing and noble but witty, mature and acerbic? Check. Hero and heroine who are weak for one another but cannot say it, and not because of an idiot plot or a miscommunication, but because they know others might get hurt in the process? Check. This was such a lovely experience in a lot of ways, even with its imperfections.
I loved Adeline’s sense of self and purpose; a side-order to that trait ends up being her stubbornness and independent streak, which aren’t tamed but are things she has to learn how to balance. I love that Adeline’s benefactresses help one another with a leg up in society and she DOESN’T need Brandon’s money or title to make her way in the world.
Brandon is a wonderful person – a contrast to his cynical cousin Freddie – genuinely concerned for the people around him – even understanding of all the ambitions Adeline harbors. It enters his mind to debauch her, but he knows too well what that would do to her. Honor governs him, and she gives him the spark to be bold and cast off the weight of expectations. If Adeline must be bold to claim Brandon’s love, then he must be bold enough to cast off old traditions to claim what he needs from life. They both must make sacrifices in the end, to their greater benefit.
Their relationship is mature and there are no silly fights over others and no misunderstandings. They mean what they say, and their biggest enemies are their own personalities.
The characters pop. Even background ones, like romance-loving Rose, the bird-loving Miss Van Allen, the cynical Freddie and Brandon’s mother, filling her emptiness with exotic hats. We even get cameo appearances from C.J Walker and Emma Goldman, the former of whom is part of the benefactress society who turns Adeline into a modern Cinderella.
The whole story progresses with great humor, the plot is inventive and interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, and the romance slow-building, sweet and clear-headed.
Overall, after a year of mediocre to decent to very occasionally brilliant romance, Duchess by Design stands out as unique and refreshing. It’s more than worth your time.