The Brooding Duke of Danforth
You know that feeling when, after finishing a book, you sit and wonder what on earth you just read? That’s me after finishing Christine Merrill’s The Brooding Duke of Danforth. It had the potential to be an engaging second-chance romance/courtship story played out against a look at the way gossip and rumour affected the relationship between the two principals; he, a wealthy duke who, by virtue of his gender and title is practically bullet proof, she the product of a union between drunkard and a social–climbing cit who has to care about what people think and say. The trouble is that the book is… well, a bit of a mess. There’s a Big Mis that could (and should) have been cleared up before the story even started but which isn’t really tackled until almost the half-way point and even then, isn’t completely cleared up until the second half; the romance is almost non-existent, the heroine’s willingness to jump into bed with the hero is out of character and even when the pair talk out their differences, they still manage to screw things up at the eleventh hour.
In the book’s prologue, we’re introduced to Benedict Moore, Duke of Danforth, and his long-standing friend, Lenore, the widowed Lady Beverly. Benedict has decided it’s time he married and is thus attending Almack’s Assembly Rooms with the intention of looking about him for a suitable bride. His attention is captured by a lovely and poised young woman who is accompanied by her loud, obnoxious father and overdressed mother. Danforth immediately determines to rescue her from her father’s obvious tirade by dancing with her, but is impressed when he realises she doesn’t need rescuing at all, handling her father’s anger with coolly controlled aplomb.
Chapter one opens three months later, and we find Abigail Prescott and her mother taking refuge from a broken-down carriage and some terrible weather at Comstock Manor, home of the Earl and Countess of Comstock. It turns out that Abigail did indeed receive – and accept – a proposal of marriage from the Duke of Danforth, but that she jilted him on their wedding day, realising she couldn’t marry a man who hadn’t spoken to her since he asked for her hand, and had shown no signs of being interested in her or of wanting to get to know her. Sadly, the weather and carriage problems aren’t the only bad news Abigail is destined to receive that day – Danforth is one of the Comstocks’ guests, and meeting him again is going to be unavoidable.
When Danforth sees Abigail again, it’s with mixed emotions – anger that she left him at the altar without explanation, but admiration and attraction, too. Realising he still wants to marry her, he determines to court her properly while they’re stuck at the mercy of the weather, and I settled in for a story of courtship and re-awakening love. But what could have been a cute and enjoyable romance took that wrong turn at Alburquerque and became a series of episodes that simply jumped from one to the next rather than giving the feel of cohesive and organic development. The characters are poorly developed and not very interesting; all we really learn about them is tied up in how they react to being gossiped about. Danforth’s famous implacability is something he’s cultivated since a young age; having grown up with a father who was constantly berating and yelling at him, he learned that the best way to do with it was simply not to react. Thus, he learned not to care what people said of him, while for Abigail, it’s the opposite; her father’s frequent drunken rages push her “to megrims and nausea” and although, like Danforth, she’s learned not to show any reaction, she detests gossip and has done everything she can to avoid it.
The other big stumbling block in the story surrounds the Big Mis I mentioned at the beginning. Early on in the story, we learn that one of the reasons Abigail jilted Danforth was because of his relationship with Lenore, who is widely presumed to be his mistress. Abigail couldn’t face the prospect of being dogged by gossip or finding herself an object of pity because her husband’s affections lay elsewhere. But – and this isn’t a spoiler because it, too, is made clear early on – Lenore isn’t Danforth’s mistress and never has been, but the pair of them encourage that perception because Danforth doesn’t care about gossip and is content for Lenore to use him as a cover for the affairs she really does have. While this was actually quite interesting, it’s problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, Danforth and Lenore allow Abigail to continue under this misconception for almost half the book – and even when they do tell her the truth, they do it so obliquely that she still isn’t sure what to believe until well into the second half. And secondly, neither of them seems to understand (or care) that their continuing to act as they have in the past will still be a problem for Abigail if she marries Danforth; that even though Lenore isn’t Danforth’s lover, the appearance of it will still cause the sort of gossip Abigail jilted him to avoid in the first place. I thoroughly disliked both of them for being so completely wrapped up in their own concerns; when Abigail actually asks “When, precisely, will my needs take priority over hers?” Danforth still can’t see the problem and actually proves the truth of what Abigail has said by arguing with her about the need to end the charade!
There are some nice moments between Abigail and Danforth earlier in the book where they do actually talk and he’s able to show Abigail that he was never indifferent to her and begins to win her over – so well, in fact, that while her reservations about marrying Danforth don’t disappear immediately, she’s happy to have sex with him. For one thing, I couldn’t believe that a young woman so careful of her reputation would do that, and for another, there’s no real relationship development and little to no chemistry between them.
Ultimately, the bland characters, inconsistencies in the story and the sadly underdeveloped romance in The Brooding Duke of Danforth combine to make it a below average read and I can’t recommend it.