Desert Isle Keeper
A Duke in the Night
I enjoyed this book very much right from the beginning, but halfway through I fell head over heels in love with it. I thought the prequel to this book, The Lady in Red, was an ‘A’ read, but this is even better.
He had danced with her on a dare.
So begins the relationship between August Faulkner, now the Duke of Holloway, and Clara Hayward, then daughter, now sister of the Baron Strathmore. That one crass episode, where August asked her to dance because his boorish acquaintances egged him on, is imprinted indelibly on his brain despite the ten years that have passed between that sublime dance and the present day.
Now, August is a wealthy, powerful peer, who is known for his brilliance, ambition, and ruthless business practices. Even as his net worth climbs to the stratosphere, he remains dissatisfied. Meanwhile, Clara has become the headmistress of an elite finishing school in London for the daughters of the nobility and wealthy cits. Neither have married, he, because he’s been too busy, and she, because her intelligence makes her unmarriageable.
What the ton doesn’t know, but August knows intimately, is that the famed Strathmore wealth is on the verge of extinction. When Clara is forced to sell her beloved Haverhall School for Young Ladies, he swoops in to anonymously buy it with the intention of razing that prime London property to the ground and building modern townhouses there. He decides to court Clara and her brother to ascertain if he can acquire their current shipping business and turn it around into a profitable venture.
In the meantime, August has daily battles with his sister, Anne. She’s seeking independence in mind and action; he wants to cosset her and surround her with all the trappings and wealth of a normal debutante at her first come-out. August’s father had gambled away all their money, when he and Anne were very young, and had been thrown into the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, where Anne lived with him for a few years. Meanwhile, August had struggled to survive on the streets of London and had eventually clawed his way out of the stews and built his present wealth. The dukedom came out of the left field for him, but the power and responsibilities settled comfortably on his shoulders. As a result of Anne’s miserable experience as a young girl, August is at pains to pamper her, but Anne has an indomitable spirit that refuses to bow down to his dictates. She forges his signature on a bank draft and runs away to Clara’s summer school on Earl Rivers’ estate in Dover.
When August finds out, he sets out in hot pursuit, hoping to not only convince Anne to return, but to also convince Clara’s brother, Harland, to sell his shipping interests. August has the earl’s commission to look over his Dover estate to ascertain the state of his lands and livestock to justify his inexplicable presence, and, unaware of his ulterior motive, Clara takes his interest in the estate at face value.
As the days go by, both find that their mutual attraction of ten years earlier has matured and intensified in the intervening years. They strike sparks off each other every time they meet even as they grapple to understand each other – each is a study of contradictions. While August’s conscience smites him at his refusal to divulge his ownership of Haverhall, Clara’s legacy from her mother, he is nevertheless able to compartmentalize and rationalize to himself that his desire for Clara has nothing whatsoever to do with his business interests in Haverhall or Strathmore shipping.
There was still no world that existed in which he would turn his back on profit for the sake of sentimentality, legacies be damned.
This can of worms eventually, of course, explodes. I had palpitations as I read this book: When was he going to tell her?
Clara is at pains to make it clear to August that her reputation is everything to her, if she’s to continue being able to guide and teach young ladies of the ton. So she will not become his mistress or conduct a long-term affair with him. Neither considers the possibility of marriage. The sexual tension between them practically hums through the pages of this book.
Both Clara and August are open-minded and attuned to nuance where the other is concerned: words, body language, mood. Neither they, nor any of the other characters, behave in set, obvious patterns. An example is how August tries to understand Clara’s censure of him despite its going against his set assumptions and everything within him rebelling against it.
One day, August barges in on the students’ art class and discovers that they’re painting a nearly nude model of a woman of a certain age. August is indignant:
“With a woman old enough to be my grandmother?”
Clara’s eyes suddenly went cool. “I didn’t realize there was an age at which one can no longer be considered beautiful. Or desirable.”
August felt his mouth snap shut.
I read this story with curiosity and enjoyment, consistently surprised by reactions that seemed unpredictable and fresh to the genre and yet just right for the story Bowen was telling. The characters in all their complexity and humanity made me care for them as they’re easy to root for: intelligent, thoughtful, courageous, loyal, and despite their tough backgrounds, decent and affectionate.
The only fly in the ointment of this excellent book is a caricature villain who, while reinforcing some of the heroine’s insecurities, is adjunct to the plot and detracts from an otherwise sophisticated storyline. The pacing is nuanced and elegant, and it drew me right along from the first page to the last with no lagging anywhere. I enjoyed how organic and unmannered the dialogue between all the characters is, especially August and Clara – it seems to flow seamlessly from their personalities, their actions, and their interactions.
(Harland manages to steal the show in some of the scenes he is in. He’s such an interesting character: a practicing physician-surgeon, who’s also a baron. I hope Bowen gives him a book o his own.)
A Duke in the Night was my second Bowen title, and I’m thrilled that I have found a new auto-buy author. I look forward to diving into her backlist.