The Duchess Deal
I’ve been looking for a good place to jump into Tessa Dare’s books, but I was reluctant to start in the middle of an already established series. So The Duchess Deal, the first book in her new Girl Meets Duke series, was just what I needed to give her work a try, and I’m really glad I did.
George, the Duke of Ashbury (called Ash by those close to him) is in need of an heir. This means he’s going to have to find himself a wife, but he’s reluctant to do so given he is so badly disfigured as a result of the injuries he sustained while fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. He was once engaged to a beautiful heiress, but Ash’s scars proved too much for her and she broke their betrothal. Ever since, Ash has been somewhat of a recluse, leaving his home mostly at night to wander the streets of Mayfair alone in the dark, engaging in countless brawls in an attempt to rid himself of at least a little bit of the rage that boils just beneath the surface. He’s not willing to change his life at all, not even for a wife, so whomever he marries is going to have to accept that. Surely becoming the Duchess of Ashbury will be enough reward for any young lady.
Emma Gladstone has been working in London as a seamstress for the past six years, ever since she was found in a compromising position and thrown out of her father’s house. She’d like to open a dress shop of her own one day, but that takes money she simply doesn’t have. When the Duke of Ashbury’s fiancée commissions her to design her wedding dress, Emma hopes this will give her the financial boost she needs to make her business a reality rather than just a dream. But the engagement is broken and no one comes to claim the dress Emma worked so hard to create. So she decides to approach the duke in hopes of recouping her monetary losses.
When Miss Gladstone shows up in his study wearing a bridal gown, Ash is struck by an idea. This young woman, so obviously down on her luck, would make him the perfect wife. She’s not in a position to make demands, she’s pretty enough, and, most importantly, she came to him, making a society courtship completely unnecessary. He proposes to her, telling her he’ll make her his Duchess, a position that can afford her luxuries she’s only dreamed about. Of course, there are restrictions. This will not be a love match. They will live together until Emma gives him an heir, after which point she can retire to a country estate he’ll turn over to her.
Emma is shocked, but she’s no fool. Although she hardly knows Ash, she agrees to his proposal and is swept up in a life unlike anything she’s ever imagined. Being Ash’s duchess will entitle her to a great many things that would have been totally out of the question for a poor London seamstress. She might even be able to help a friend of hers, a young noblewoman who has found herself pregnant outside of wedlock.
From the start, Emma is intrigued by Ash, even though he does everything in his power to keep her at arm’s length. Slowly, the two of them begin to build a friendship of sorts, but both are leery of getting overly attached. Neither wants to be hurt, and they both know that letting someone get close usually leads to pain. Can they let go of the past in time to claim their HEA?
Ash’s servants are desperate for their employer to fall in love with his pretty, vivacious young wife; he’s been so very bitter and reserved since his return from the war, and they want more for him. They’re definitely not the extremely proper servants I’ve read about in other regency romances, something that didn’t altogether work for me. I struggled to fully buy into a man as strict as Ash allowing his staff to run roughshod over him the way they sometimes do here. Still, the relationships between master and servants provide more than a few moments of hilarity that made suspending belief totally worth it.
Ash is sometimes a difficult hero to really like and his self-loathing, though understandable, gets tiresome pretty quickly. I wanted to see him put his demons to rest and fully embrace the love Emma was so willing to offer him. There’s also a subplot involving his masquerading as a masked man called The Monster of Mayfair that I found a little foolish. I can’t say too much about it without spoilers, but I wish it had been laid to rest a little sooner than it actually was.
When Ash and Emma finally give into their feelings for one another, it’s truly a beautiful thing. It took longer than I would have liked, but once it happened, it was so worth it. They make a wonderful couple, each complimenting the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Although Ash is on the high-handed side, Emma is more than capable of holding her own with him, something I was grateful for. I have a hard time with heroines who allow the men in their lives to dictate their every word, thought, and action, so I was relieved to see Emma’s spunk.
Some readers might have a difficult time with Ash’s initial proposal to Emma. It comes completely out of the blue, and it does require you to just go with things that don’t make a great deal of sense at first. Still, if you hang in there, I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in love with the Duke and his new Duchess just as I did.
Despite a few flaws, I found The Duchess Deal to be an enjoyable and light-hearted read. Ms. Dare has crafted some great supporting characters who I hope to learn more about in future books. While I wasn’t completely wowed by my first foray into her writing, I have plans to check out more of her work in the not-too-distant future.