Duke of Thorns
Duke of Thorns is the first in a new series from Sara Ramsey, and it is linked to her earlier Muses of Mayfair books by virtue of the fact that the hero, the Duke of Thorington, was the villain in The Earl Who Played with Fire, the final book in that set.
Gavin Emmerson-Fairhurst is a man who takes his family responsibilities very seriously. Known throughout society for being cold and ruthless, he is even strict and forbidding with the siblings he loves very much, insisting his every command is obeyed to the letter and arranging their lives down to the last detail. Of course, he does this precisely because he loves them – but naturally, they don’t always take his interference well, and he doesn’t recognise their need to strike out on their own. At the beginning of the story, Thorington has gathered his family together to impart bad news. Due to a variety of circumstances – none of them good, and all of them frankly, quite preposterous (which is the only real issue I had with the story) – the family fortune is all but gone and they are facing financial ruin. He tells each of them that they need to get married within a month, before the situation reaches rock-bottom and the news leaks out that they’re broke.
He plans to marry his youngest brother, Anthony, to one of the Briarley heiresses, three cousins who stand to inherit a grand property – Maidenstone Abbey – and a substantial fortune. For some strange reason to do with their grandfather’s will, the ladies are being forced to compete for it by making a the most suitable marriage. In order to further his scheme, Thorington has inveigled them all an invitation to the house-party being held at Maidenstone – but Andrew, for almost the first time, is not in the mood to be dictated to and makes it clear he’s not prepared to carry out with his brother’s orders.
Although English, Callista Briarley has lived in America for most of her life. She’s spirited and independent, and owns and runs a successful shipping company which has been granted a Privateer’s license by the American government. At the beginning of the book, Callie is travelling to England from Baltimore, fearing that perhaps an Englishwoman will not be welcome there any longer given the current state of war between England and America. On the way, her ship ends up in the middle of an action which sees the capture of a number of English ships and their valuable cargo.
Her journey is beset by detours and delays and takes twice as long as it should have done, so she arrives at Maidenstone just in time to be present at the start of the house-party. Annoyed at being ignored on her arrival, Callie “borrows” her cousin Lucretia’s horse, in order to pay a visit to the Maidenstone itself, and is surprised when her solitude is broken by the presence of a handsome, but harsh and arrogant man whose flirtatious but superior attitude immediately rubs her up the wrong way.
Returning to the Abbey, Callie is followed almost immediately by the Duke of Thorington and his entourage – and inevitably, this is the same man she met not an hour before.
All Callie wants is a biddable husband who will leave her alone to pursue her business interests and run her shipping company – and she wants Maidenstone as well, which surprises her, as she has no real attachment to the place. But she suddenly realises that she does want somewhere to call home. So she agrees to Thorington’s terms – her fortune in exchange for her freedom.
But while Thorington is immediately taken with Callie’s exuberance and admires her gumption, Anthony is appalled by her lack of sophistication and her forthrightness. The duke insists that once his brother gets to know Callie, he’ll change his mind, but Anthony flat out refuses to marry her, even after Gavin has brokered the deal. He’s so set on getting Anthony comfortably settled, that he can’t see that Anthony is never going to agree – and thinks that if he can make Callie fit for the drawing rooms of the haute ton, his brother will change his mind. So he becomes Callie’s “governess”, tutoring her in behaviour and deportment – which naturally gives them many opportunities to get to know each other better.
Duke of Thorns is, of course a variation on the theme of “stuffy aristocrat is unbent by quirky female” trope, but it’s elevated above the mundane by the quality of the writing, the characterisation of the two leads and the direction the plot takes in the later stages of the story. Callie very quickly detects that beneath Thorington’s stern exterior lurks another man – Gavin – kind, funny, honourable and more importantly, loveable, a man so busily engaged in trying to do the right thing for his siblings and making sure they have comfortable lives that he has lost sight of the fact that he’s just as deserving of a loving relationship and a good life as they are.
I’m not usually a fan of “unconventional” heroines, as I find that sometimes I’m too often hit over the head about it, but Callie proved to be an exception. She’s feisty without being annoyingly so, she’s got a lot of spirit, and she’s clever, tough, and very engaging. There is some very sharp, witty dialogue between them as she crosses swords with Thorington at every opportunity, refusing to call him “your grace” or curtsey, all of which only serves to further the interest the starchy peer is trying hard to ignore. All in all, Callie proves herself to be an admirable prospective bride…just not for Anthony.
Thorington is smitten with Callie from the start, but isn’t prepared to deviate from his plan, no matter how strong the attraction between them. And it’s very strong; the couple has great chemistry and their scenes together simmer with an underlying sexual tension that is very well developed. It’s true that there were times I wanted to hit him for his high-handedness, but his intentions are always good – to protect those he loves – which makes it difficult to dislike him for very long.
I mentioned at the outset that the circumstances surrounding Thorington’s sudden impoverishment are the one aspect of the book that bothered me. Without going into too much detail, the duke has supposedly been under a curse which has, in fact, been responsible for his amassing vast wealth, and now it’s been broken (I haven’t read The Earl Who Played with Fire, so I’m not sure how or why), his run of luck has broken also.
I realise that Thorington needs to be facing financial ruin in order for the rest of the plot to work, but attributing this to bad luck – and the back luck caused by a curse, no less – is flimsy at best. I had to knock off part of a grade for that because it’s so silly: Come on Ms. Ramsey – you’ve done a great job with the rest of the book, so surely you could have come up with something better!
That said, however, if you can get past the daft premise, then Duke of Thorns is a really enjoyable book, and I will be looking out for the next in the series.