It's Hard Out Here for a Duke
I seem to have spent a bit of time lately saying “don’t let the stupid title put you off reading this book because it’s really good” – and now I’m saying it again. This fourth book in Maya Rodale’s Keeping Up With the Cavendishes series is the best of the set once you get past yet another vomit-inducing excursion into Craptastic-Titles-R-Us, so try not to let it put you off reading what is actually a very well-written, tender and poignant story that is as much about the two central characters working out what it really means to be true to oneself as it is about their love for each other.
Readers who have been following the series will know that the four Cavendish siblings – James and his sisters Claire, Bridget and Amelia – have recently come to London from their home in America owing to the fact that James has unexpectedly inherited a dukedom he doesn’t want. He would be more than content to remain at the family ranch doing what he does best and what he loves – breeding and raising horses – but is prompted to come to England because of his concern for his sisters. All of them are no longer young (by early nineteenth century standards!) and perilously close to being on the shelf; and James thinks that perhaps moving to England will improve their prospects of making a good marriage. He also thinks he should at least keep an open mind about the dukedom and what it entails – but the closer he gets to English shores, the more anxious and uncertain he becomes.
He and his sisters are to stay the night at an inn in Southampton before resuming their journey to London. When they’ve gone to their rooms, James stays downstairs in the tap-room and is pondering his fate, when he notices a lovely young woman sitting alone at the bar. He can’t keep his eyes off her, and her shy glances indicate some interest on her part, too. James approaches her, they strike up a conversation and agree to spend the night together, ‘Just James’ and ‘Just a girl’ he’s met at a bar.
Yes, the idea that a respectable young woman at this period would sit alone at a public bar and then agree to a one night stand with a man she just met is a bit of a stretch of credulity, but it’s worth getting past it in order to enjoy the rest of the story.
If you’ve read the synopsis, then you’ll already know that James’ ‘Just a girl’ is, in fact, Miss Meredith Green, companion to his aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Durham. On the way back to London after a visit to her sick mother (who has dementia), she is weary and heartsick, looking ahead to years of a life lived for others and needs, just once, to feel fully alive and as though someone truly sees her, Meredith, not just another trusted servant.
James is, of course, shocked to realise that Meredith is his aunt’s companion, but also delighted to see again the young woman with whom he’d shared such pleasure and to whom he feels such a strong connection. At first, he actively pursues her – as far as he is able under his aunt’s close scrutiny – but Meredith takes pains to point out to him that she owes everything to the duchess and the last thing she wants or can afford to do is to anger her by indulging in some sort of clandestine relationship with him.
The dowager is intent on getting James and his sisters ready to make their débuts as quickly as possible before the speculation already circulating that they are uncouth savages who are not fit for English society becomes worse. Realising she has quite the task on hand in preparing Claire, Bridget and (especially) Amelia, the duchess asks Meredith – to whom she has given the education afforded daughters of the nobility – to help James to acquire the necessary polish while she concentrates on the girls.
James finds all the rules and strictures exasperating and makes it clear that he’s only giving this duke business a trial and that if he decides it’s not for him, he’ll be heading back across the Atlantic. As it is, the only thing keeping him in England is Meredith; but as James begins to realise that there is more to being a duke than escorting his sisters to balls and parties and driving in the park, he also starts to see that Meredith is right about the impossibility of there being anything further between them. He bears a responsibility to all those who depend upon the dukedom for their livelihood, a responsibility that was neglected following the deaths of his uncle and father; and James gradually finds himself assuming the ducal mantle in more ways than one. He even accepts that his aunt’s insistence on his finding a suitable bride from the ranks of the ton is one of those duties he must discharge – and even though he is deeply in love with Meredith, determines to find someone he can at least be comfortable with for the sake of his title, his duty – and the happiness of his sisters.
The author does a very good job here of showing how James grows into his role as duke without fundamentally changing the essence of the man he is. He’s not a surly, brooding hero with intimacy issues; he’s a kind, decent and loving man who wants to do the right thing for those who depend on him, especially his sisters, who annoy the hell out of him but whom he adores anyway. The emotional connection between him and Meredith is very strongly wrought and leaps off the page and their longing for one another is palpable. Meredith could have been a bit of a doormat given her situation as neither family nor servant, but she isn’t. She’s aware of her place and very conscious of the debt of gratitude she owes the dowager, but she’s her own woman; warm, intelligent and intuitive, she becomes a friend to Claire, Bridget and Amelia, all of whom are well aware of the way the wind is blowing and see no reason why their brother should not be happy.
The two central characters are immensely likeable without being saccharine, and while Josephine, Dowager Duchess of Durham, initially comes across as a stuck-up, interfering biddy who cares only for the title and not the man holding it, that is soon shown to be a misconception. She’s concerned about the fate of the dukedom, yes, but for reasons that are far from superficial.
The storyline runs concurrently with those in the previous books, but you don’t need to have read them in order to enjoy this one as it works perfectly well as a standalone. Ms. Rodale’s writing is intelligent and engaging, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t find myself having to suspend my disbelief too often, probably because, as a man, James isn’t bound by the same constraints as his sisters (sad, but true) so there’s less of a ‘wallpaper’ feel to the novel overall.
There’s a bit of a hiccup towards the end involving a disclosure that isn’t really necessary in terms of the plot, but I appreciated the way that James and Meredith find a way to be together while keeping in sight what is most important to them and remaining true to themselves. It’s Hard Out Here for a Duke is a tender romance and a fitting way to wave farewell to the Cavendish siblings.