Sabrina Jeffries’ Project Duchess is a slow start to her new series and is more plot than romance, stuffed with an array of subplots that have little emotional or narrative payoff. A better title might have been Project Murder & Other Nefarious Things For Which the Blurb Does Not Prepare Readers.
Fletcher, Duke of Greycourt (known mostly as Grey), meets Miss Beatrice Wolfe over a plate of funeral biscuits (yes, apparently there were such things – one of the best parts of this book is the period detail). He’s come to his mother’s house to offer short-term support as she grieves the loss of her third duke, his stepfather, the Duke of Armitage. Beatrice, niece of the deceased duke, is trying to manage a brother who is struggling with what would now be understood as PTSD as well as preparing for her societal début.
Grey agrees to stay on to help his sister – and Beatrice – familiarize themselves with the rules and customs they’ll need to learn before their come outs. He’d rather not do this, but his half-brother, Sheridan, thinks the last duke was murdered… by Beatrice’s brother, Joshua, and under the auspices of being helpful, Grey agrees to probe into the matter. To give you an idea of how enjoyable this is to read, it takes 18% of the book to cover what I just fit into 179 words.
I had no idea that the ‘secrets’ referred to in the blurb for this book were going to be so weighty or all-consuming in terms of the story. Murder, child abuse, sexual harassment, and PTSD — Project Duchess fits it all in. Grey and Beatrice are both victims of abuse, and a major aspect of their bond is that they share honestly about those experiences with each other. However, they both lie to family members about the seriousness of the abuse because their family members want to stay in denial and ask leading questions like “It wasn’t too awful for you?” And, in Beatrice’s case, she felt her brother “had enough pain in his life already without her adding to it.” I object to the idea that trauma victims need to shield others from the reality of their trauma. Additionally, Beatrice is the victim of sexual harassment/abuse, and at a time when women are bravely speaking about their experiences, suggesting women should censor their truths struck me as especially, frustratingly discordant.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grey and Beatrice spend a significant amount of time preoccupied with the murder and other traumas. This also means that they spend much less time preoccupied with each other than I expect (demand, really) in a romance. I do not need my hero and heroine to be oblivious to everything else – if an alien spaceship is about to land on you, please take shelter – but I don’t want to feel that their love is a low priority. I honestly did not get invested in these characters until they started investing in each other.
There is a definite echo of Pride and Prejudice in how Grey and Beatrice are characterized. “I will be my usual arrogant self, and you will be your usual forthright self,” Grey says to Beatrice early on. Grey’s disdain for the ton is noted, as is Beatrice’s failure to conform to society, though this is more in her spirit than in her actions. Though Beatrice is labeled “self-conscious [and] awkward” there is no evidence in the book that she is either and though also called a “tomboy”, she does nothing more traditionally masculine than enjoy the company of the family hunting dogs. (I’ve always adored my family’s Labradors, but I never thought that had anything to do with my femininity – or lack thereof!)
When Grey and Beatrice finally get each other alone and focus on what their hormones and hearts are making them feel, the book picks up immeasurably. I found myself grinning more than once at Sabrina Jeffries’s flair for the double entendre and the love scenes are fresh in both senses of the word – they feel original and very cheeky. We get both Grey’s and Beatrice’s close third person PoV, but it was Beatrice’s perspective that stole the show. I love an enthusiastic virgin heroine, and she fit into that category perfectly. One of my many favorite quotes from her first time is: “So she took off her nightdress. What else could she do? She wanted him in her bed, and he wanted her naked.”
Ms. Jeffries’s greatest crime, if you will excuse the pun, is that she uses the murder as her prime source of plot and conflict and then fails to resolve it at the conclusion of the story! It is a totally uninspiring attempt at compelling the reader to read the rest of the forthcoming series (I will not as I cannot suffer through any more descriptions of ducal sleuthing) and it makes all the pages spent on the murder even more of a waste. Most of Project Duchess’s problems lie in all the unmet expectations it sets – for romance and the satisfaction of a murderer caught. Had it played instead to Ms. Jeffries’s strengths as a romance writer, I would have enjoyed this story so much more.