If I Only Had a Duke
If only If I Only Had a Duke had actually been about marrying a duke! Unfortunately, there are plots, subplots, tangents, overly complicated lead characters – he’s a hybrid secret vigilante/rake hero, she’s a timid and shy (but not really) heroine; supporting characters who are overly familiar and inappropriate (‘buddy’ manservants); extreme versions of common stereotypes (overbearing mothers and grandmothers); too perfect friends; and finally, so many liberties taken with historical accuracy that even this reader (who rarely catches these things) took offense. It was all TOO MUCH. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first book in this series (How the Duke Was Won) but this one is so much worse. It’s such a mess that it’s difficult to work out where or how to start this review, but I’ll begin with the main characters, Lady Dorothea Beaumont and the Duke of Osborne.
Dorothea, nicknamed ‘Disastrous Dorothea,’ after an embarrassing, failed attempt to snare a husband, has spent the past few months living in exile in Ireland with her Aunt Emma. She helps her aunt take care of a bee colony and make her famous marmalade, and in her free time, she visits Balfry House, the neighboring (vacant) estate of the Duke of Osborne. During her first visit she discovers a treasure trove of artwork covered and stored in the attic. An amateur (but apparently expert) art historian, she believes one piece to be a rare self-portrait by the female renaissance artist Artemisia; on the strength of her hunch, she writes to Osborne asking permission to view and catalog the rest of the collection. He refuses.
Though beautiful and perfectly trained to be the perfect debutante – which begs the question as to why she doesn’t seem to know the correct form of address for a duke – Dorothea has spent three seasons failing to snag the duke – any duke – her mother dreams of. Awkward, uncomfortable, and barely able to speak when she’s around men, Dorothea has ambitions to spinsterhood (do people actually aspire to this?), and plans to return to Ireland to live with her aunt in Ballybrack Cottage, at the end of the season. But in the meantime, she hasn’t forgotten the Artemisia moldering in the attic at Balfry, and when she spots Lord Osborne across a crowded ballroom, Dorothea decides to approach him and demand he give her permission to catalog the collection. This rather seems to negate the reason at the heart of Dorothea’s still being on the shelf – an inability to carry on a conversation with a man, let alone force one to do her bidding.
When she approaches Osborne, a handsome, unrepentant rake with a reputation for bedding widows and unhappy wives, he’s on the terrace whispering in the ear of a Mrs. Renwick. Despite the fact she’s clearly interrupting a private tête-à-tête and that she’s usually struck mute by proximity to the opposite sex, she’s determined to get his attention. When he finally acknowledges her, she launches into a detailed explanation of why she wants access to the collection. The duke, instead of telling her to beat it, instead asks her to join him for the first waltz of the evening.
And Thea’s hand did a very strange thing. It nestled into the duke’s palm.
Because those midnight eyes mesmerized her.
Because that seductive smile was a formidable weapon and she’d been asked to defend Rome against the Visigoths with only a toy sword.
I just bet Mrs. Renwick wished she had a sword – or Ms. Bell had a better editor. But anyway…with a nod to the orchestra, Lord Osborne spins her into a waltz.
However, he has an ulterior motive for singling Dorothea out. Apparently his dancing the first waltz with her will make her irresistible to all the potential suitors watching, and will keep her too busy to continue bothering him about Balfry, and ensure she won’t return to Ireland because she’ll be married. I don’t quite follow his logic either, but just go with it. It’s important that she turn her attention from him because he’s living a secret double life as a pseudo-Robin Hood figure. With the assistance of his trusty manservant Conall (Because he cons all? Subtle.) Osborne helps desperate gamblers overcome their addictions with ‘tough love’ interventions at knifepoint, sleeps with unhappy wives to give them pleasure in their otherwise dreary lives, and systematically tracks down the men his promiscuous/gambling addicted/degenerate father double crossed when he was younger. Why? Because one of those men took revenge by shoving his younger brother Alec off a cliff when Osborne was ten and he blames himself for not keeping a closer eye on Alec.
Oh dear. And that’s just the backstory. It just gets more complicated from here on out.
Dorothea doesn’t want suitors, and blames Osborne after she’s inundated with flowers and attention after ‘the waltz to end all waltzes.’ In a fury, Thea redirects all the flowers to Osborne’s bachelor rooms and attaches a note with the words Roses are red. Violets are blue. I don’t wish to be popular. So I’m coming for you. While Thea is busy plotting revenge, the duke visits his mother (a shut-in with mental anxieties) and learns about one more possible suspect – a former suitor and the man his father stole her from so many years ago. She laments not marrying Patrick O’Roarke when she had the chance, and Osborne CAN FEEL IT IN HIS BONES THAT THIS IS THE MAN HE’S BEEN AFTER ALL ALONG. He makes plans to travel to Ireland and track him down.
Shy, timid Dorothea (Ms Bell – why do you persist in clinging to these false attributes?), makes her way to Osborne’s house the next morning, confronts him while he’s naked and then demands that he escort her to Ireland. All of this takes place in the first quarter of the book, and simply provides the basis for why these two find themselves traveling together to Ireland and from here, the story goes from bad to worse.
While the pair travels the days and nights away in their traveling chaise (complete with a pull down bed), we’re forced to suffer through more of their PoVs which mostly consist of desperate, never ending thoughts about wanting to get it on with each other. For a self-proclaimed (virgin) spinster, Lady Dorothea has a fairly explicit and dirty mind. Dalton does too – his is bordering on lecherous – but his PoV jumps between a never ending commentary on his prowess in bed, to constant self-flagellation about keeping his depraved thoughts to himself – because he’s somehow lost the ability to love, and can only hurt Dorothea. Oh, if he could only find it and put us out of this misery.
But I digress. On the road, Dorothea decides independence also means assuming a false identity. When they make a stop at an inn, she insists they pretend to be Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who have three children and are on their way to Bristol. When Osborne fails to play along, Dorothea makes a scene in front of a clergyman and announces she’s Mr. Jones’ passionate, Italian, opera singing mistress. Oh geez. It would seem apparently she’s forgotten that it isn’t a good idea for an unmarried, unchaperoned female traveling with an infamous rake to draw attention to herself. But she somehow convinces Osborne her fake persona will fool anyone pursuing them and throw them off their trail. Her logic makes zero sense, but he falls for it and decides the whole thing is charming.
Later that day their carriage is stopped by a highwayman. Only it turns out to be a highwaywoman, who turns out to be a former friend of Dorothea’s from Ireland, who turns out to be Con’s niece, and eventually becomes his stepdaughter. And we only learn all this because Dorothea steps in front of Osborne, faces the highwayman’s gun and then proceeds to lecture him/her on the proper way to hold up a carriage – and recognizes her friend. I’m really not making this stuff up folks. Dorothea is FEARLESS and independent. Osborne thinks it’s sexy. Of course he does; you won’t.
Eventually – and many more ridiculous scenes later (including THE BEST SEX EVER), they make it to Ireland and find O’Roarke. But Ms. Bell has a few more twists up her sleeve and both revenge and happily ever after have to wait. When it’s all said and done, so many people get happy endings (aunts, mothers, manservants, highwayman…) you’d be forgiven for hoping the reader deserved one too!
Alas, there is also no happy ending to this review. If I Only Had a Duke, the second book in the aptly named series The Disgraceful Dukes, is indeed, disgraceful.