Duke with Benefits
Manda Collins drops us into a tension-fraught tale right from the first pages of Duke with Benefits. The story of a bluestocking and the duke who becomes enchanted by her, the book has its flaws but summarily provides a rousing and fun romance.
Daphne Forsythe is one of four benefactresses of the will of Celeste Beauchamp, a scholarly lady who bequeathed her home and her vast library of academic material to four young ladies whose interests matched her own as she was slowly dying of poison. The four women, all of meager backgrounds and no salient opportunities, quickly made haste to the seaside mansion upon receiving letters informing each of them of their inheritance and that they must live at Beauchamp House for a full year with the other heiresses or forfeit their quarter of the money. They soon found themselves embroiled in the search for Celeste’s murderer, during which they formed warm friendships, the house becoming the home none of them ever had.
A mathematician, Daphne has settled into Beauchamp House’s vast library in the hope of finding the lost Cameron Cipher, an obscure equation hidden in an antique book which lies among the house’s many tomes. Said cipher will allegedly lead the decoder to gold hidden by the Cameron clan during the last Jacobite rebellion, and thus to untold riches and amounts of respect. Daphne – who grew up the victim of her father’s gambling and spent much of her youth at gaming parlors counting cards for him – hopes to use any publicity gleaned from her puzzle-solving to advance the cause of women in mathematics. But to fail is to risk ridicule in a field that already looks down its nose at women who follow intellectual careers.
Affable Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland and Celeste’s nephew, has been courting and sparking with Daphne ever since the young miss first encountered him at Beauchamp House. After a period of scintillating flirtation, Daphne and Maitland have evolved into friends who make no bones about yearning to explore something more while having no clue as to how to pursue their urges. Daphne refuses to marry Dalton, preferring to have an affair after a scarring attempted assault in her youth, but Dalton won’t make love to her without a ring on her finger. Their quagmire is soon interrupted when Nigel Sommersby, a fortune-hunting American gambler and blast from Daphne’s past, surfaces to beat her to the cipher, ending up murdered in the library for his efforts. When her father shows up on the heels of this event and threatens to drag Daphne back to London and marry her off to a disreputable gentleman to satisfy his ever-increasing debts, Maitland and Daphne enter into a marriage of convenience, but their confused feelings soon become the least of their troubles as government forces align to make the search for the code even more desperate and difficult.
Duke With Benefits is charming in many essential ways. The characters are absolutely wonderful. Daphne is dry, a bit sarcastic and bitter, and also outspoken and fierce; she’s driven by logic and logic provides her driving force. She adores math more than anything in the world, which is a lovely trait, and altogether she’s a fabulous heroine and one of Collins’ best. Maitland, meanwhile, is one of my favorite recent romance heroes, with charm, kindness, wit and a sense of tender intellect about him that’s interesting. He’s also sexy and has a sense of humor and is honorable – everything I love in a hero. He dreams about creating a home for elderly horses – how can you not fall for him?
Their romance is pitched just right, imbued with honesty and caring, a delicate dance between true understanding and love, flirtation and protectiveness in a way that’s beautiful in every regard.
The supporting characters boast some gems as well; the best of them happens to be Lady Serena, Maitland’s sister and a single mother, who I hope will surface as a lead in another volume of the series. The friendships between the women of Beauchamp House are delightful, and the skills of all four women are eventually employed to solve the central mystery. For fans of the previous book, Ready Set Rogue, Ivy and the Marques of Kerr have a fairly sizable part in this one, but it’s possible to read this book without having read the previous one.
The plot has some lovely, trope-heavy mystery elements that are fun and call back to movies like The Mummy series, and gallops along at a speedy pace. The writing is generally brisk and fun, and readers who enjoy puzzles, word games and ciphers will likely love following along and deciphering the clues alongside Daphne and Maitland.
The book’s biggest flaw is its pacing. That wonderful galloping pace I just mentioned does have a few drawbacks, and the biggest one is that plot points tend to speed by and, while they feel fully developed, they don’t feel as if they’re lingered over with proper relish. In seventy four pages, we get a shooting, an attempted shooting, a murder and a fake marriage; Daphne thinks to herself that Maitland sees her as a sister, and less than ten pages later he’s proposing marriage. A slightly slower tone might have helped, but you can’t call the book dull.
Duke With Benefits is a delightful romp that’s a joy to read. Eb erus ot yub ti!