In Bed With the Duke
The premise of In Bed With the Duke – two complete strangers wake up in bed together and have no idea how they got there – is one I liked the sound of, and I was looking forward to finding out what happened and what they were going to do next. There’s a mystery to be solved, the hero is a duke in disguise, the heroine is the victim of a plot to steal her inheritance… but even though the book is well-written and the central characters are engaging, there’s something missing I can’t quite put my finger on and the story as a whole just doesn’t gel.
Gregory Willingale has spent almost his entire life being dutiful and responsible. A widower of some years, he was married at seventeen to a young woman who didn’t love him and wasted no time in cuckolding him, so he is wary of emotional entanglements and suspicious of women and their motivations. When he awakens next to a rather lovely, very naked young woman with no memory of how either of them got there, while another woman harangues him and accuses him of being a “vile seducer of women!”, he is furious and immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is the victim of a plot to entrap him into marriage.
Wanting nothing more than to be on his way, Gregory hastens the young woman from his room, but when he later discovers that she has been abandoned by her relatives, his protective instincts won’t allow him to leave her to fend for herself. He tells her that he will take her somewhere safe – to the house where his aunt lives – and then work out what to do next. She has no alternative, and agrees to go with him, realising that in spite of his earlier anger and his brusque manner, he is a gentleman and will not harm her.
Miss Prudence Carstairs has lived much of her life with her aunt because her mother died when she was young, and her father, an army officer, quite rightly thought that a life following the drum was no life for a young girl. Aunt Charity – who isn’t at all charitable! – took her in begrudgingly and has always belittled her and insisted on squashing Prudence’s vivacity and spirit. Lately remarried to a man Prudence dislikes, her aunt has been trying to marry her off against her will in order, Prudence suspects, to get her hands on her inheritance.
As Gregory and Prudence travel together, they begin to piece together the events of the previous day and night. At first, Gregory suspects that someone called Hugo must be behind the prank as a way of causing him (Gregory) to lose a wager, but they gradually work out that they had both been drugged and that Prudence was deliberately placed in Gregory’s bed, most probably by Aunt Charity and her new husband – but for what purpose?
Even though their journey only takes a few days, it’s not a particularly comfortable one after they are robbed and have to make their way on foot. They end up having to sleep in a barn, Gregory has to do some manual labour to pay their way and they have a long day and night’s walk in order to reach their destination – which Prudence is astonished to discover is much grander than the simple country cottage she had been imagining. And when they do reach safety, Gregory is faced with the prospect of having to confess his true identity to Prudence – that he is in fact the Duke of Halstead and not plain Mr Willingale at all.
Gregory is a rather sweet beta-hero whose backstory provides strong reasons for his actions during the course of the book. He is unfailingly solicitous of Prudence’s welfare and protective of her, even when she accuses him of trying to control her or of being after her inheritance. She is quick to judge him, it’s true, but is just as quick to admit when she’s wrong about him and to realise he’s trying to do what’s best for her. They work well as a couple – her vivacity loosens him up a bit – and I enjoyed their interactions, but their relationship evolves at lightning speed and I didn’t really feel a strong connection between them.
The biggest problem I have with the book is that the title gives away Gregory’s identity immediately, whereas he doesn’t reveal it to Prudence, make her aware of his motivations for not telling her or his reasons for travelling incognito until the last quarter of the story. I can’t help feeling the book as a whole would have worked better had I not been aware of his identity either, because then I might have been able to feel more sympathy for Prudence when she finds out. As it stands, her reaction feels forced and contrived simply to introduce some uncertainty into the last portion of the story.
In Bed With a Duke isn’t the best of Ms Burrows’ books, and while I’ve certainly read worse, I’m afraid I can’t recommend it. It’s a pleasant, undemanding read, but there’s nothing especially memorable about it, and the romance moves too quickly to be really convincing.