The Courtesan Duchess
I have to confess that when I read the opening scene of this, Joanna Shupe’s début novel, I almost closed the book and picked up something else. In it, the heroine watches her long-estranged husband pleasuring (though not shagging!) another woman in the middle of a game of cards at a very debauched party – which isn’t really the sort of thing I expect to read right at the beginning of a romantic novel! But I reasoned that I was probably supposed to think “eew”, and kept reading – and I’m glad I did, because The Courtesan Duchess turned out to be an engrossing, angsty story which, while not without flaws, was very readable.
Eight years before the book begins, Nicholas Seaton, heir to the Duke of Colton, was blackmailed by his unpleasant, dictatorial father into marrying a sixteen-year-old heiress for her money. Still reeling from the impact of the death of his beloved older brother, and knowing his father quite capable of carrying out his threats, Nick had no alternative but to agree to the scheme. But that was as far as he was prepared to go, and he left the country immediately following the ceremony, leaving his young bride untouched and dependent upon his cold, uncaring parents.
In the years of his absence, Nick has inherited the dukedom and has had no contact with his wife or his family, and wants none. He ignores what his friends tell him of his wife’s difficulties, and continues his hedonistic lifestyle with no thought or care for what is going on back in England, where Julia is facing penury. She doesn’t want her husband back; she doesn’t even know him other than by his reputation as the ‘Depraved Duke’, but his mother refuses to allow her to live in any of the ducal properties, his cousin is embezzling money from the estate and has drastically reduced her income in an attempt to force her to his bed – and in desperation, she comes up with a last-ditch plan to force the family to provide for her financially. She travels to Venice, where she disguises herself and pretends to be an infamous courtesan, determined to seduce Nick, and get herself pregnant. She reasons that if she is carrying his heir, his miserly mother will be forced to at the very least provide her with an income. I’m not a big fan of the “oops – I shagged you and had no idea of your true identity” type of plotline, but this one is rendered plausible by the fact that the couple didn’t know each other before the wedding, Nick was drunk for most of it and Julia was little more than a girl at the time and her appearance has changed somewhat over the years. The bit I found hardest to swallow was the idea that she’d had “lessons” in how to act like a courtesan from London’s finest ladybird, one Pearl Kelly, whose words of wisdom can be found at the beginning of each chapter.
Everything goes according to plan, and Julia and Nick spend an idyllic week together, actually getting to know each other out of bed as well as in it. The love scenes are nice and steamy, and the author writes the more tender, romantic scenes very well, showing Julia discovering that her gorgeous husband is not at all the hardened reprobate his nickname would suggest. He’s generous, considerate, and quite sweet upon occasion, and before the week is out, she is horrified to discover that she’s fallen for him.
When Nick discovers the truth, he is naturally furious, and immediately suspects Julia of having seduced him in order to foist another man’s child upon him. The infamous double standard that allows a man to put it about as much as he likes and be patted on the back for it, while a woman who does the same is reviled rears its head – Nick refuses to believe Julia when she tells him the child she is carrying is his and calls her a whore. He sends her away to his estate in the country to await the birth, fully expecting the baby to arrive “early”.
During their time apart, however, Nick is brought to see the truth of Julia’s situation and to realise that he has behaved very badly towards her. He still can’t forgive her for her deception, but he can’t forget her either – and he’s furious with himself for the fact that he still wants her, in spite of everything.
It’s always difficult to like a man who jumps so easily to the worst of conclusions and who is ready to fling horrible insults at a woman who has done nothing that he hasn’t done himself. But then, this is an historical romance, and it’s a sad fact that women were held to a much higher standard in this regard than men were at the time this story is set. Julia, however, refuses to take Nick’s crap, and makes it clear that whatever he believes, she is his duchess and that she deserves his financial support if nothing else – and that once he’s sorted all that out, he can bugger off back to Italy with her blessing. But just as Nick discovers the reasons behind Julia’s desperation, so does she come to learn more about the circumstances that caused Nick to behave as he did.
The bulk of the story is concerned with how these two emotionally bruised people find their way back to each other, and in spite of Nick’s being a git for a large part of it, I did want them to work everything out. As often happens in stories like this, the hero probably doesn’t grovel enough. But Julia is no pushover, and struggles between wanting to forgive Nick and wanting to (metaphorically) kick his arse.
The book is well-written and the two principals and major secondary characters are strongly drawn, but the secondary plotline in which someone is out to do mischief to one or both of the Coltons feels like overkill. Nick and Julia have enough to contend with without external threats and the final showdown is rushed and rather too melodramatic for my taste. I also found myself shaking my head at the rather “girly” dialogue occasionally given to the male characters, such as this conversation between Nick’s friends Winchester and Quint –
“he fell for her, Quint. I saw it happen. Colton and Julia fell in love in Venice. They were mad for each other – until the guilt overcame her. She didn’t want to hurt him so she left. And it’s only a matter of time before they realise how perfect they are for one another.”
I just can’t hear a man talking like that!
With those few reservations in mind, I’m going to recommend the The Courtesan Duchess to anyone looking for a new author to try. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a début historical romance that I’ve rated above average, and while this one does have a few flaws, I’m definitely interested in reading more by Ms. Shupe.