I Married the Duke is the first in a trilogy subtitled “The Prince Catchers”, in which three sisters – Eleanor, Arabella and Ravenna – attempt to discover the truth about their family and find love along the way, and on the strength of this one, I’d say it promises to be a very enjoyable trio of stories.
This being the first book, it sets the scene and in the prologue, we meet the sisters as young girls who have gone to have their fortunes told at a local fair. They are orphans, the sole survivors of a shipwreck, and although an attempt was made to find relations to take them in, the search was unsuccessful and the girls ended up in a foundling home. From there, they were adopted by the Reverend Martin Caldwell who has given them a secure – albeit austere – upbringing.
The only thing the girls have of their mother’s is a gold signet ring inlaid with a large ruby, which the gypsy tells them belongs to a prince. A prince that one of them will wed.
This is the story of Arabella, the middle sister, who, when we meet her again some thirteen years later, has made her living as a very successful finishing governess, and is on her way to her new situation in the household of Prince Renier of Sensaire. Over the years, she has worked her way steadily through various households, moving through the ranks of society until she is able to find work in houses of the very highest rank, her eye still on the prize of netting a prince.
Renier requires his sister, Jacqueline, to be given some “town bronze” before she is launched into London society and has engaged Arabella’s services for that purpose. She is to travel to Saint Nazaire in southern Brittany and then on to the Château Saint Revée-des-Beaux where she will reside with the family and instruct the princess until they remove to London.
Unfortunately, Arabella has managed to miss the ship on which she was supposed to have sailed, and in desperation, approaches the compelling and enigmatic Captain Andrew of the Retribution to ask him if he will convey her to Saint Nazaire. He turns her down flat, believing her to be on the run and therefore trouble – but relents when he discovers her helping a trio of abandoned children.
Captain Andrew is, however, not all he seems. He is in fact Lucien Westfall, naval hero, Comte de Rallis, heir presumptive to a dukedom – and owner of the château to which Arabella is travelling. He joined the Navy as a youth in order to escape life under the guardianship of the cruel and vindictive Absalom Fletcher, and to protect his younger brother who has some sort of mental illness, the nature of which is never explicitly revealed. His naval career has been a distinguished one, but in forging it, he has left behind the trappings of his title(s) and is reluctant to assume the duties that such things entail.
Luc is drawn to Arabella from the start and finds amusement in trying to flirt with her and saying outrageous things to her. He senses that she is not telling him the whole truth – and also that she is desperately suppressing an attraction to him, the strength of which rivals his to her.
On board ship, Arabella makes the acquaintance of Mr. Miles, the Captain’s steward (and in reality, his valet) and Gavin Stewart, a brusque Scotsman with a twinkle in his eye who serves as both ship’s surgeon and chaplain. Both are clearly devoted to Luc, and Gavin especially isn’t above telling him when he’s being an idiot. I enjoyed their exchanges very much.
The sea voyage also gives Luc and Arabella the chance to interact and become better acquainted and for the sparks to well-and-truly fly as Arabella’s somewhat buttoned-up attitude towards him continues to incite Luc to flirt ever more obviously and outrageously with her.
Once the Retribution reaches its destination, the pace picks up considerably, as Arabella finally lets herself succumb to Lucien’s many charms, only to be immediately plunged into a nightmare of evil schemes and murder. An incident aboard ship had suggested that perhaps someone with a grudge was seeking to injure Luc, but when he is violently attacked and left for dead it’s clear that there is more at work than a grudge. The scene on the beach where Lucien is dying surrounded by his friends, and in which he implores Gavin to marry him to Arabella is quite affecting, and the depth of her grief at his loss leapt off the page for me.
Arabella travels to the château alone to take up her post, subdued and broken-hearted for the man with whom she now realises she has fallen in love – only to meet, several weeks later, the mysterious – and recuperating – Comte de Rallis and to discover that she is a Comtesse.
Naturally she is astounded, and deeply conflicted. On the one hand, she is overwhelmed with relief to discover that Luc is alive, but on the other, he kept his true identity from her and let her grieve for weeks on end, so it’s not surprising that she is somewhat unreceptive to his overtures.
The rest of the story sees things move up a gear or two as Lucien and his friends seek to discover the identity of the person behind his attempted murder, or rather, to find the proof they need to expose him; and Lucien seeks to convince Arabella of the truth of his affection for her and to remain with him as his wife.
I found Arabella to be rather prickly and hard to like at times because she was so determined to hold herself aloof from Lucien and from everything he was offering her. That said though, her caution is justified; as a governess, she was frequently subject to unwanted advances and quickly acquired a distrust of men and their promises. As a child, she was the more rebellious of the three sisters and was frequently the subject of the Reverend Caldwell’s wrath for her disobedience, as well as his pronouncements that her flaming hair was an advertisement for her propensity to sin and his implications that the girls’ mother was probably a whore. Given those conditions, I suppose it’s not surprising that she would be wary of Lucien, even when her deepest instincts are telling her that he’s the man for her.
Like Arabella, Lucien is a caregiver, fiercely driven to protect those closest to him. He sent his younger brother away from their guardian’s house in order to protect him from abuse and then got away himself to join the Navy where he served with honour, ending up as the captain of the Victory. As this story begins, he learns of the death of his uncle, the Duke of Lycombe, and that he may well be the duke now, if the child carried by his aunt is a girl or is stillborn as her other babies have been. It is a title he will assume somewhat reluctantly as he has never been particularly interested in the running of a great estate and has so far chosen to ignore the information coming from the estates at Combe that Fletcher – the duchess’ brother – is running things into the ground so that he can enrich himself.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was seeing Luc transform himself from piratical sea-captain into the ducal scion he was always meant to be. He finds that he wants to go home to Combe with his wife and to do what he can for his tenants and dependents while the title is in abeyance, because if the dowager gives birth to a boy, Fletcher– now the Bishop of Barris – will undoubtedly continue to control the dukedom.
I found I Married the Duke to be a compelling read – I think I finished it in two sittings. It’s well written and tightly plotted, there’s a well-rounded and engaging set of secondary characters and the flirtatious banter between Luc and Arabella was superbly done and felt very natural – sometimes, it can feel forced, as if the author has to make an effort to maintain the humour and the ‘zing’, but that’s certainly not the case here. I found Lucien to be the more likeable of the two protagonists for the most part, possessed of humour and charm whereas Arabella was sometimes a little cold and too intent on maintaining her self-possession which made her come over as less than sympathetic.
But all in all, it was an excellent read and I’m really looking forward to reading the other books in the series.
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