It’s been three years since we last had a new book from Loretta Chase, and I’m sure the burning question for historical romance fans is – was the long wait worth it? I’m happy to say that yes, it was; Ten Things I Hate About the Duke may be one of those silly movie-reference titles that abound in historical romance these days, but the book itself is – thankfully – far from silly. It’s classic Chase, featuring a pair of well-rounded, likeable protagonists, oodles of sexual tension and prose filled with insight, a generous helping of snark and the author’s customary razor-sharp wit. It’s the best historical romance of the year, hands down.
Note: There are minor spoilers for the previous book, A Duke in Shining Armor, in this review.
Miss Cassandra Pomfret, eldest daughter of Lord deGriffith, is young woman who not only dares to hold opinions of her own but (even worse) dares to actually express them. Cruelly nicknamed by the ton – Medusa and de Griffith’s Gorgon are just two of the charming epithets she’s attracted – she is continually frustrated by the restrictions imposed on her by society, the expectation that she should care more about her frocks than about working to make the world a better place. But after she speaks out at a political meeting – and almost causes a riot – her father, a respected and influential politician, has had enough of her unconventional and ill-advised behaviour. He has no doubt of her good intentions or her belief in the causes she espouses, but she needs to recognise that her actions reflect badly on her family, and particularly on her younger sister Hyacinth, who is having her very first London Season. Lord deGriffith sees no point in his younger daughter moving in society if Cassandra’s actions continually undermine her position and reputation, and declares it is at an end, and that he will not give permission for Hyacinth to marry until Cassandra has done so. For her part, Hyacinth – who has become the toast of the Season and attracted a host of beaux – isn’t particularly bothered at having her Season curtailed, but even so, Cassandra feels dreadfully guilty about it. A couple of days later, Hyacinth urges her sister to go to visit their ailing former governess in Roehampton, and Cassandra sets out, with her maid and her groom accompanying her.
His Grace with the Angel Face the Duke of Ashmont has repaired to The Green Man on Putney Heath following the duel earlier in the morning with the Duke of Ripley. Ashmont issued the challenge after his fiancée absconded on the morning of their wedding with Ripley in tow (perfectly innocently at first), and then, a few days later, jilted Ashmont in order to marry Ripley. Honour (and given this is Ashmont, a good deal of booze) demanded the challenge, and fortunately for all concerned, Ashmont didn’t put a bullet through Ripley. A few hours later, Ashmont has drunk away the morning, despondent, and still shaken by the thought that he could conceivably have killed his best friend, He’s set to drink the rest of the day away when a commotion outside draws his attention. Very much the worse for wear, he staggers outside, his one intention to stop the row that’s adding to the hammering in his head; he raises his pistol and fires into the air – causing the horses drawing an approaching carriage to bolt and the carriage to topple over.
Horrified – and still very drunk – Ashmont staggers over to the scene to find two young women lying near the carriage and a third body – a man – a short distance away. He’s made his way over to the women and is relieved when one of them – a redhead – sits up… and not so relieved when she yells at him and smacks him with her bonnet. As he finally faceplants, she gets up and calmly steps over him saying “Yes, you, of course… It only wanted this.”
Somehow, Cassandra thinks, she should have known Ashmont to have been the cause of all this mayhem – it’s what he does best after all. She’s known him, on and off, all her life, and was even – as a girl – in love with him… until she realised he was never going to become the man she hoped he would. But there’s no time to dwell on that; her groom has been badly injured and needs help; Ashmont’s clout and money are needed which means, unfortunately, that so is he.
Still lying on the ground, Ashmont is contemplating the clouds and flashing grey eyes and dark red curls… when a bucket of cold water is dumped unceremoniously on his head and he’s exhorted to get up and make himself – and his money – useful.
Ashmont does indeed make himself (and his money) useful and he tries hard to fix the humungous mess he’s made – especially after Cassandra’s maid decides to return home, leaving her mistress completely unchaperoned. Once word gets out about his involvement, Cassandra will be ruined – but luckily for all concerned, Ashmont’s uncle Frederick (Lord Frederick Beckingham, whom we met in the previous book) has a cooler, wiser head and advises Ashmont to leave as soon as possible after buying the silence of the staff at the inn, and thus protect Cassandra’s reputation.
Ashmont is sensible enough to take good advice, and disaster is averted. But… clever, challenging, imperturbable, waspish Cassandra Pomfret has completely captivated him, and he decides to pursue her. The trouble is, she clearly isn’t impressed by his looks, his money or his rank – which are the things that usually get him what he wants – and he’s going to have to work harder than he’s ever worked at anything (which, let’s face it, he’s never done) if he wants to win her.
What follows is a sprightly and absolutely delightful dance as Ashmont, who is far from the idiot he allows the world believe him to be, slowly but surely works out how to prove to Cassandra that he’s serious about her. He listens to her, he values her opinion, he finds out about things that are important to her and in the process, he starts to take stock of his own life, and to realise how little he’s made of it – which makes Ten Things as much a story of a man discovering the person he’s truly meant to be as it is a romance. Ashmont isn’t a man redeemed by love, or a rake reformed due to the love of a good woman; he’s a man redeeming himself, a man coming to realise that he’s wasting the many gifts he’s been given and that he wants to be a better man than he’s been hitherto. Yes, Cassandra provides the impetus by making him want to change, and by opening his eyes to the reality and frequent unpleasantness of the world around him – but no change of this sort is effective if the person concerned isn’t determined to do it, and Ashmont is prepared to work at turning his life around.
Ashmont and Cassandra are superbly drawn characters who simply light up the pages when they’re together, and the author has done a splendid job of making Ashmont – who could have been hard to like – an endearing character, even when he’s making bad decisions. Cassandra is intelligent, independent, outspoken, and deeply compassionate, and I was impressed with the way she’s shown to be a woman pushing at the boundaries of the conventions that constrain her and trying to make a difference in the world, while still being very much a woman of her time. The author’s subtle but pertinent commentary on the position of women in society is beautifully observed and quite low-key but no less scathing for that.
There’s an excellently-drawn secondary cast; I really liked the dynamic between Cassandra’s parents, and appreciated that Lord deGriffith isn’t an ogre, but a loving father driven to the extremes of exasperation. I can’t wait to find out what’s going on between Blackwood and Alice, and there’s definitely a story to be told about Lord Frederick and Lady Charles. But for now, Ten Things I Hate About the Duke is a terrific read and a fabulous example of historical romance done right. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait three years for the next instalment!
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