Say Yes to the Duke
I’ve read most of the ‘big’ names in historical romance, but somehow I hadn’t read an Eloisa James novel before Say Yes to the Duke. My romance reader friends are evenly split between those who read her and those who skip her newest releases, and I thought it was time I formed my own opinion. Based on this novel, I’m a fan. SYttD is the fifth book in the Wildes series, and although I was unfamiliar with the Wilde family (they play big and small secondary roles in this story), it works as a standalone.
Although Viola Astley, stepdaughter of Hugo Wilde, Duke of Lindow, has lived with the Wildes since her mother married the duke when Viola was two years old, her earliest memories were defined by feeling not Wilde. Quiet and timid, Viola has always felt as if she was the exact opposite of what a Wilde should be. A disastrous experience at her first ball as a fifteen-year-old – which ended with one guest accusing her of attempting to entrap him and Viola vomiting all over another – stole whatever courage she once had. Content and happy to spend time with her family, close friends, and menagerie of pets at Lindow Castle in Cheshire, Viola hopes to avoid ever making her début. But shortly after the death of the elderly vicar Viola regularly helped, her mother decides it’s time for Viola and her beloved sister Joan to make their come-outs.
Viola is resigned to her terrifying fate… until she’s introduced to the new vicar and his fiancée. Mr. Marlowe is handsome, quiet, and has no interest in polite society. When he pays the family a visit, Viola impulsively decides she’s in love with him. She ignores the fact he’s engaged, that they’ve never spoken to one another, and that he’s a complete stranger, and decides to marry him and avoid the marriage mart altogether. Newly in love, she resolves to overcome her shyness, and with Joan’s help (she adamantly insists Viola IS a Wilde and should repeat the mantra “I’m a Wilde child,” whenever she feels anxious), she begins to conquer her nerves. ‘Helping’ the new vicar also keeps her mind off her anxieties; she’s thrilled when her oblivious (to her scheming) family decides the vicar should accompany them to London.
Meanwhile, the angry gentleman who once accused Viola of conspiring to trap him into marriage is making plans to marry, too. Devin Lucas Augustus Elstan, Duke of Wynter, son of a father with a reckless propensity for dueling, and a mother (who died when he was fourteen) who either engaged in pitched battles with her husband or disappeared for months, choosing to live in more congenial environs, doesn’t believe in love or happily ever after. He’s determined to find a wife who knows how to behave as the perfect duchess, and then plans to ship her off to the country after she produces an heir; he’s set his sights on the beautiful Lady Joan Wilde, daughter of the Duke of Lindow. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving at the ball in her honor, he’s forced to retreat to the library to avoid some of the more aggressive young women who rushed at him the moment he walked into the ballroom. He’s enjoying the solitude when his uncle, Sir Reginald Murgatroyd, discovers him.
Viola hoped for a clandestine rendezvous with the vicar in the library (she slipped a note under his door claiming she was terrified by the ball), and is annoyed when she discovers the room is already occupied. She sneaks in and hides behind a curtain, hoping the gentlemen will quickly depart, but then their conversation snags her attention. Sir Reginald, after chastising the stranger in the chair about someone named Otis (Devin’s cousin), suggests he leave the library and seek out Lady Viola Astley. He believes Lady Viola might make a good match for Devin, but Devin is quick to demur. He reminds his uncle he wants a real Wilde, a woman who has been raised as ducal progeny, not just tossed into the nursery due to her mother’s marriage, and then proceeds to disparage Viola and list the many reasons why Joan is a better choice. Sir Reginald gives up in the face of Devin’s stubborn rejection, and departs. But just as Devin is about to rejoin the ball, he’s surprised by the arrival of Mr. Marlowe. After an awkward exchange about why a vicar is meeting a young woman – alone – in the middle of the night, Viola pops out of her hiding place and pretends she’s just arrived. Mr. Marlowe quickly escapes, but not before Devin senses there’s more to Viola’s late night summons than mere nerves. He begins to chastise her, but an indignant Viola – nothing like the mouse he previously likened her to – takes him to task for his offensive comments. At first he’s speechless, then amused and intrigued, and finally – after she refuses to accompany him into supper – he’s smitten.
Friends, when Viola decides she’s in love with Mr. Marlowe based on little more than a glimpse of him over tea, I almost DNF’d this novel. It was ridiculous. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did. Because while the blurb leads one to believe Devlin ruthlessly goes after Viola’s heart (which belongs to the vicar) and that perhaps SYttD features a messy love triangle, he doesn’t and it isn’t. Viola has no idea what it means to be in love, and lucky for us, neither does Devin. Fortunately, Viola isn’t one to hold a grudge and once Devin apologizes and attempts to get to know her, she forgives him for his unkind words and suggests they might be friends. Oh Viola, Devin wants to be a whole lot more than friends.
Sexy, slightly aloof, and convinced Viola is his future duchess, Devin finds every opportunity to spend time with her, and to prove he’s a better marriage prospect than Mr. Marlowe (who, in a secondary plot, is dealing with a shrewish, awful fiancée and secret affection for another woman). So without knowing it, Devin is jealous of Mr. Marlowe for no reason. Viola is similarly smitten with Devin, and drawn to the warm and gentle soul he masks behind his steely façade. James does a lovely job showing these two falling in love – despite their mutual lack of relationship experience – and she ratchets up the sexual tension until an incendiary kiss leads them to engage in increasingly risky behaviors whenever no one is watching. They bicker and flirt and make up and kiss – truly, it’s great fun – and then they get caught. But James doesn’t belabor the circumstance that leads to their engagement; instead she embraces it as a way to once again show the trust and affection they’ve already established. It’s a happy union right from the start, in bed and out of it. Friends, these two are delightfully naughty all the time, and this reader was here for it.
So why isn’t this a DIK? Well, don’t forget, I almost DNF’d it early on! Viola falling instantly in love is ridiculous, but I was already annoyed by the sort of smug satisfaction James takes in her fictional Wilde family. We get it – they’re funny/cool/talented, blah blah. Their perfectness, for lack of a better word, alienated this reader right from the get-go and I was glad their roles were minimized as the story progresses. James’ dialogue often feels more contemporary than her setting; I caught more than a few characters ‘not giving a rat’s ass,’ long before that phrase came into regular use, and then there’s the secret Devin is keeping about his shared past with Viola. It leads to an underwhelming Big Misunderstanding, and while I know there always has to be a stumbling block to the happily ever after – this one is a dud. Viola loves Devin and feels safe and protected by his company; by the time he confesses, whatever happened in their past no longer matters to her.
These complaints aside, SYttD is a lovely introduction to Eloisa James. I enjoyed it.