Never Desire a Duke
This second-chance romance, in which an estranged couple are stranded together following a snowstorm, was for the most part an enjoyable and well-written début from Lily Dalton. The novel has lot going for it – an attractive and devoted hero-to-die-for, a lovely underlying sensuality and a real sense of relationship progression – but a couple of rather large flaws prevented me from rating it more highly.
Sophia and Vane Barwick, Duke and Duchess of Claxton have been estranged for some months following the loss of their unborn child. Instead of taking comfort from each other, the loss tears the couple apart, and shortly after the tragedy, Claxton leaves England to resume his diplomatic work in Europe. During his seven-month absence, his wife hears not a word from him and feels certain he must be having a whale of a time and not sparing her a thought. With this in mind, Sophia determines that it is time for her to move on with her life, and she is going to ask her husband for a formal separation.
On the night of a party which is being held to celebrate her beloved Grandfather’s birthday, she hears that Claxton has come back to England and is both annoyed and upset that she seems to have been the only person to have had no idea of his return.
Because Claxton had a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man before their marriage, Sophia now has it in her head that he’s been sleeping around since, too. He admits that in a drunken binge after their loss, he did escort a few women around that he probably shouldn’t have, and that he also didn’t conduct himself with particular discretion – but he never slept with any of them. Sophia doesn’t believe him – a situation not helped by the fact that her gorgeous husband has to continually fight off the unwanted attentions of numerous women. The fact that he isn’t interested in any of these other women seems to have passed her by.
Her request for a separation catches him completely off guard, as he had hoped to be able to set things right between them and resume their life together. It’s true that his running off to Europe to escape his grief wasn’t probably the best thing he could have done, and he does admit that he should have stuck around and fought for her and their marriage. But – and here is the first of those big flaws I mentioned – it’s Sophia who refuses to see him and sends him away following the miscarriage. Claxton is the one who believes they should unite in their grief and console each other for their loss, but she withdraws from him and yells at him to stay away from her. This is the premise for their separation and it’s rather weak.
Sophia needs time to think and to work out what she wants – so after the party, she heads off to Camellia House, Claxton’s childhood home, knowing that he never spends any time there. But unbeknownst to her, her husband has discovered her intention and arrives before her, walking into the midst of a situation that could have come straight out of a French farce, and which only serves to worsen his relationship with his wife.
Sophia always spends Christmas with her family, so she doesn’t intend to be away too long, but the onset of a severe snowstorm means that a return journey is impossible, and is likely to be so for a few days. So she and Claxton have no alternative but to wait out the weather.
There were some very well-characterised secondary characters in the story, most notably the flirty Lady Mellenbourne who really just wants to be loved, and Mr and Mrs Kettle, the house’s old retainers. They worked there when Claxton’s mother was alive and are very fond of him, despite his long absence. He had a happy childhood there – until his mother died when he was ten and he and his brother were removed from the house by their tyrannical father who, up to that point, they had never even seen. Claxton harbors no love for the man, who believed his young heir should be taught all the things necessary to grow up a real man, such as drinking, gambling and whoring. Especially the whoring, which Claxton admits, probably accounts for the rather large number of females who shared his bed before his marriage.
And this leads me to major flaw number two. At the beginning of their stay at the house, Sophia asks Claxton to write her a list of the names of all his previous lovers – not because she wants to hold it over him, but because she doesn’t want to find herself blindsided in the future by an encounter with an ex-mistress. Naturally, he is completely averse to the idea and tries to talk her out of it, but it’s the only way he can get her to agree to abandon the idea of a formal separation, so he capitulates and writes it.
Of course it’s just about the worst idea imaginable – even though he’s been faithful to her since he asked for her hand and the women he’s named are all in his past, Sophia is still hurt and angry, even though he did exactly what she asked after advising her against it.
And as if that’s not bad enough, Sophia, rather than destroying the list, instead keeps it and wears it, like a talisman, tucked into her bodice. She uses it to remind herself not to let herself fall in love with him again because while she is someone who loves whole-heartedly, he clearly isn’t. If he was, then he wouldn’t have slept with so many other women – and because he didn’t love any of them, he therefore can’t love her either.
By this time, I was losing patience with the woman. She believes the worst of her husband for no reason other than gossip and rumor and the fact that women find him attractive. She’s insecure, quick to condemn and frequently self-righteous – and all the while Claxton is showing her in as many ways as he can think of that he loves her. True, he wants to seduce her as well, but he’s also considerate, kind and doing his best to meet her more than halfway in trying to mend their marriage.
On the plus side, I thought that the way their relationship progressed was very well written indeed, with some lovely moments of domestication (like the cooking scene) and interaction with the local villagers. Claxton has not been to Camellia House for more than a decade, and because the house and estate has been closed up, there is no work for the locals and the village is becoming rather run-down as a result. I liked that Sophia helped Claxton to see that the estate and surrounding area needed him and his patronage, and the way that they were bonding over their shared interest in the local community.
In the end, this really was a book of, well, if not two halves, then two parts. A large chunk of it was very enjoyable indeed – the parts which followed Sophia and Claxton as they began to open up and say the things they needed to say to each other as they took the first steps towards repairing their fractured marriage. Their interactions were humming with romantic tension and awareness, and the love scenes were well written and sexy. But the initial premise for their separation was weak, and I found Sophia’s insistence on retaining an emotional distance from Claxton got annoying very quickly. She justified it by telling herself that it was because she was accepting his limitations when it came to loving – that he would never love her as completely as she did him, so she was protecting herself from future hurt. But there was no real basis for this assumption on her part, and I had a huge problem with the fact that Sophia just couldn’t let go of what is a rather ridiculous determination to protect herself against a husband who shows her over and over again that he is utterly devoted to her. Towards the end, keeping the list of exes leads to some unforeseen and (for Claxton) heart-breaking consequences – and at that point, I really wanted him to tell her he’d had enough and she could have her bloody separation!
For a début novel, this was well-written and the characterization was strong, with Claxton probably being the most well-drawn of all the characters. I think Lily Dalton has shown real potential in this novel as it’s clear that she is capable of writing with flair and emotion and that she has the ability to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. But I would have enjoyed the book more if the conflict between the protagonists had had a more sound basis and if the heroine had been less sanctimonious and, in the end, more deserving of her husband’s devotion.