Stolen Encounters with the Duchess
This second book in Julia Justiss’ Hadley’s Hellions series is easily read as a standalone, although characters from the previous book – Forbidden Nights with the Viscount – do have parts to play in this one. Stolen Encounters with the Duchess is a very readable cross-class romance which plays out against the solidly crafted backdrop of the work of a group of political reformers in which our hero, David Tanner Smith is one of the key players.
Readers of one of the author’s previous books, From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife, may recall that a lad called Davie Smith was instrumental in rescuing the heroine and thereby earned the gratitude of the hero, Sir Edward Greaves. Davie was sponsored by Ned at Oxford, then worked as his secretary before realising his political ambitions and becoming MP for Hazelwick. He is now a hard-working, respected member of parliament and is particularly dedicated to the cause of political and social reform.
Years earlier, when Davie was working for Ned, he encountered sixteen year-old Faith Wallingford, whose brother, the Marquess of Englemere, was one of Ned’s closest friends. In spite of the huge difference in their stations, Faith and Davie became fast friends, frequently enjoying discussions about anything and everything, from art, to music to books and, of course, politics. But theirs was not a friendship that could last, and they haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.
While Davie has spent the last ten years living a fulfilling and interesting life doing something he loves, Faith’s life has been the opposite. She fell in love with the handsome, charming Duke of Ashedon, married him and gave him three sons, only to discover that his frequent and indiscreet infidelities had made her a laughing stock among the ton. Not only that, he had insidiously made sure that all ties with her family and friends were cut, leaving her completely dependent on him for everything. It’s only now, in the months since his death, that Faith has discovered how isolated she is; cut off from everyone she used to know and even prevented from spending much time with her sons, she is a very different young woman to the vibrant and quick-witted girl that Davie Smith fell for all those years ago.
To make matters worse, Faith’s critical, officious mother-in-law has decided to move with her so that she can make sure the new eight-year-old duke is receiving the proper guidance. Which to her means teaching him to be a rude, arrogant and self-entitled arse like his father. And then, Faith’s dissolute brother-in-law keeps making unwanted advances which are becoming more and more threatening. She is anxious about her boys, weighed down by the continual carping of the dowager and is at a very low ebb, having no friends or family she can confide in. Until, that is, an odd quirk of fate propels her into the arms of a stranger who saves her from the unwanted attentions of a couple of ruffians – and turns out to be none other than Davie Smith, all grown up, filled out and ridiculously handsome. They haven’t seen each other for over ten years, but Faith knows he has become a rising star in political circles – even though such things as politics are thought to be far too difficult for ladies to understand. Realising that Faith is starved for good company and intellectual stimulation, Davie invites her to the “discussion evening” being held by friends of his the next night, and agrees to meet her earlier in the day to bring her up to speed on the likely topics for discussion.
I enjoyed this story of young lovers reunited after a long separation. Davie is as much in love with Faith as he ever was, and just as aware of the distance between them. Even though he knows he can never be more to Faith than a friend, he helps her to rediscover herself and to again be the bright, assertive and lively woman she had been before her marriage. With Davie’s support, Faith is able to start living her own life once more, re-connect with her family, take control of her sons’ education and to stand up to the dowager. His obvious admiration also helps Faith to regain confidence in herself and her attractiveness, but she is as conscious of the social gulf between them as Davie is and worries that their relationship will be misconstrued in such a way that will affect her position in her sons’ lives.
Cross-class romances can be difficult to pull off in historicals because the social strata were so strictly defined, and I appreciated the fact that Ms. Justiss has taken such a detailed look at the difficulties faced by her protagonists in this story. In fact, their consciousness of the difference in their stations is really the only thing keeping Davie and Faith apart, but it’s not a pointless road-block on the way to HEA-land; it’s a real concern and both characters are going to have to make major reassessments as to how they see themselves, each other and what they want from life if they are going to be together.
Faith’s situation as a woman worn down through an unpleasant marriage is presented with accuracy and sympathy, and her dilemmas feel very real. Davie is a steadfast, honourable and attractive hero, and I particularly liked the few scenes which clearly show what a good influence he will be on Faith’s sons in spite of his low station. The character of Faith’s brother-in-law effectively shows the fallacy of the assumptions made at the time that those of the upper classes must necessarily have been everything that was right and good, and presents a strong contrast to Davie, an orphaned nobody who has more integrity in his little finger than can be found in half the aristocracy.
Stolen Encounters with the Duchess is enjoyable and emotionally satisfying with a well-integrated historical background and two engaging and attractive protagonists. At category length, it’s a quick read, but it doesn’t lack depth or nuance and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking to read a tender second chance/reunion story.