She Tempts the Duke
The beautiful and unexpectedly brainy — in the early 1940’s, she designed and patented a sophisticated weapons system, technology is still in use today – actress Hedy Lamarr once said, “I can excuse everything but boredom.” Ms. Lamarr would not have excused Ms. Heath’s latest, the dull She Tempts the Duke. The novel, the first of a series of books entitled The Lost Lords of Pembrook, introduces three brothers who reappear in society after being “lost” for twelve years. Lord, I wish they’d stayed lost.
As the book begins, fourteen year-old Sebastian Easton is imprisoned in a tower with his two brothers: his twin Tristan and their younger sibling Rafe. They’ve been locked away by their homicidal uncle, Lord David, who Sebastian is sure has just killed the boys’ father and plans next to murder the three lads so he, Lord David, may become the eighth duke of Keswick. Sebastian believes — and this is the tale’s opening line – “Tonight was the night they would die.” Instead, they are rescued by the girl next door, Sebastian’s best friend, Lady Mary Wynne-Jones, in an entirely improbable scene. Mary pleads with Sebastian to seek safety in her father’s home but he, sure nowhere is safe from his uncle’s machinations, tell her he and his brothers must flee. He promises he’ll return when he’s grown, determined even as a lad to reclaim his title and his estate Pembrook.
Twelve years pass and Sebastian and his brothers remain lost — no one has seen or heard of them since the night the three vanished. Mary has spent almost all that time caged in a convent — her father’s punishment for the “mischief” she caused by helping her friends escape — but has finally been allowed to return to society. The first ball she attends is hosted by the ambitious Lord David and his insipid wife. Lord David has petitioned the Court of the Chancery to grant him the official title of Duke of Keswick — his absent nephews have all reached their majorities and thus he may have them declared dead – and his wife is throwing this fete in anticipatory glee. Suddenly, the steward who’s been proclaiming the names of the nobility as they arrive, announces “His Grace, the Duke of Keswick,” “Lord Tristan Easton,” and “Lord Rafe Easton.” Mary, with rest of the chattering, dancing ton, is staggered to see, standing on the landing, “Three towering men with unfashionably long hair as black as midnight.” The legendary lost lords are back.
They have not, however, returned unscathed. Sebastian, who spent the interim years as a soldier, is brutally scarred and missing an eye. He is a hard man, consumed with vengeance (he wants to obliterate his uncle) and fixated on regaining Pembrook and his birthright. The rest of the ton shuns the brothers, but Mary stalwartly defends the three and seeks out Sebastian’s company. Her behavior earns her the ire of her friends and family, and ultimately causes her fickle fiancé to jilt her. Sebastian, feeling responsible for her now precarious social standing, insists they marry. She, despite his assertion he has no heart left to give, accedes to his will. She thinks, “She knew his childish heart had belonged to her. She refused to believe that she couldn’t possess his adult heart as well.”
The two marry and over the course of several months they build a relationship. There are obstacles to overcome of course: Sebastian’s desire for vengeance wreaks havoc on Mary’s heart and he is ravaged with guilt over his forced abandonment of his brothers years ago. Additionally — and this was so acute I found it strange — Sebastian is loath to let Mary see him nude; their lovemaking takes place with the bed curtains drawn and the candles snuffed. Lord David — a monotonously wicked villain — continues his efforts to slay his nephews. The conventional and exaggerated finale is one in which Mary’s life is threatened and Sebastian realizes love, not land, is his heart’s desire. The narrative is proficient, predictable, and pedestrian.
Fortunately, for Ms. Heath’s many fans, Sebastian’s brothers are more fascinating than he. I hazard the next book will be Tristan’s story and perhaps his will be more engaging than his twin’s. If not, I’ve hopes for Rafe’s story. He, the youngest, has an utterly unexplained past; he’s the most compelling character in the book. Unlike that of Mary and Sebastian, Rafe’s is a story unlikely to bore.