Four Nights With the Duke
Eloisa James returns to her Desperate Duchesses universe for Four Nights With the Duke, the second in the series to feature characters we met as children in the earlier books. Emilia Carrington – known as Mia – is, at fifteen, infatuated with the handsome young Septimus Evander Brody, heir to the Duke of Pindar. Humiliated when she overhears him making fun of a romantic poem she has written about him, she refuses to be cowed, telling him that she wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man in England.
Years later, Mia is forced to eat her words when, following the tragic deaths of her brother and his wife, she must marry in order to retain custody of her young, disabled nephew and protect him from their avaricious uncle. But when her fiancé abandons her at the altar with only a few weeks to go before the one-year deadline Mia has only one option. She has, in her possession, a letter written by the late Duke of Pindar in which he admits to treason – which she plans to use in order to blackmail the current duke – Vander – into marrying her.
Needless to say, Vander is furious. Mia daren’t tell him the reasons behind her scheme, and because in his anger, he burns the letter she has written setting out her terms, he doesn’t realise that what Mia wants is a temporary marriage in name only. When he calms down after her visit, he acknowledges to himself that, as he has to get married sometime, she is as good a choice as anyone, and, more importantly, she’s not the sort of woman likely to cause gossip. His family name is already mud thanks to the twenty-year-long scandal of his mother’s extramarital liaison with Mia’s father, and Vander is determined to make sure that his own marriage is above reproach. As far as he’s concerned, he’s only getting married once, but he’s not going to make it easy for Mia. Still fuming over her audacity in threatening him and believing her to be still madly in love with him, he determines on his revenge. He’ll marry her, but will limit her time in his bed to only four nights per year (I have no idea why four – it seems rather arbitrary!) and even then, he’ll only come to her if she begs him to bed her.
There is quite a lot going on in the book, and there are many obstacles Vander and Mia must surmount if they’re going to be able to make a life together. Their family background is fairly complicated, as Vander is still incredibly bitter over what he sees as his mother’s betrayal of his father and the resulting damage to their family name. When Mia points out that perhaps their parents were lucky to have found a long-lasting love, Vander is skeptical. He sees love as destructive, and doesn’t want it, so whenever he finds himself feeling affection for Mia, he lashes out verbally and says something horrible to her. In addition, Mia struggles with feelings of inadequacy; about her looks (she’s small and curvy when the fashion is for tall and willowy) and the fact that others have never seen her as “good enough”, typified by her brother’s decision not to appoint her as his son’s guardian.
When Vander finally meets her nephew Charlie, he very quickly deduces that Mia’s need to protect the boy was at the root of her desperation to marry him – and also realises that the boy is in danger of being overly-coddled. The scenes between the pair are some of the best in the book, with Vander treating Charlie in the same way as he’d treat any other boy of his age, something the lad has never experienced before.
I have a weakness for forced-into-marriage stories, and confidently expected to enjoy this one. For the most part, I did enjoy it, but for a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. For one thing, I couldn’t quite reconcile Vander’s fury at Mia’s machinations with his almost instantaneous lust for her. He’s dying to get into her knickers from pretty much the get-go, and the speed at which he progressed from irate incredulity to insta-lust made me feel dizzy!
I also found the pacing in the last part of the book to be a bit off. While most of the story deals with the newlyweds’ navigation of their shaky relationship, the last 10-15 percent veers off in a different direction and feels a little disjointed. The ending, too, is somewhat jarring and melodramatic, which may have been the intention given the number of different literary associations which abound, but it’s nonetheless abrupt and a bit contrived.
Apart from that, the writing is excellent and the motivations and emotions of both central characters are skilfully conveyed to the reader even as they are at pains to conceal them from each other. The protagonists are very well fleshed-out, and there are also a couple of stand-outs among the secondary characters – Vander’s uncle Chuffy, an habitual drunkard, obviously an unhappy man who drinks to numb his own sorrows, but who means well; and Mia’s nephew Charlie, a charming and very bright boy who, unlike the character of Rose in the previous book, isn’t precocious to the point of implausibility.
There are lots of little literary in-jokes dotted throughout the books. Mia is the author of half-a-dozen romantic novels published under the name of Lucibella Delicosa and most chapters are prefaced by some of the notes she is making for “her” new book. There are some amusing winks in the direction of some of Ms James’ fellow authors, and, I believe, a reference to the novels penned by the hero of Julia Quinn’s Ten Things I Love About You. Mia’s evil uncle is a lip-smacking, moustache-twirling villain, surely a nod towards the gothic novels which enjoyed such popularity at the time the book is set – there was always an evil uncle plotting to steal an inheritance from the heroine or her family somewhere along the line in those!
Overall, Four Nights With the Duke is an angsty and absorbing read, in which the raw emotion is well-balanced out by the humour and more tender moments. Mia is an admirable heroine – intelligent, determined and perceptive – and Vander, while there were times I wanted to hit him, is just the sort of wounded, sexy hero one can’t help falling for. Fans of Ms James will undoubtedly enjoy this story, and I’m sure it will appeal to those who are new to her books as well.