Sarah MacLean concludes her Scandal and Scoundrels series with The Day of the Duchess, the book many of us have been eagerly anticipating since Sophie, youngest of the scandalous Talbot sisters, pushed Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into an ornamental fish pond in book one, The Rogue Not Taken. Sophie’s actions were prompted when she caught her eldest sister’s husband in flagrante delicto with another woman in front of half the ton – including the pregnant duchess herself, and I suspect we were all cheering Sophie on for her defence of her sister and calling Haven all kinds of bastard for cheating on his wife.
But in spite of that, I was eager to read the story behind a marriage that had obviously disintegrated and descended into bitterness and betrayal and fervently hoped that the author would write it for us. Bringing an estranged couple together when they have so much baggage between them is a difficult task to accomplish without glossing over the events that tore them apart, or spending so much time wallowing that the HEA doesn’t ring true, but Ms. MacLean has done it with considerable aplomb. It’s an angsty book, the emotions are raw and messy; and although I do have a few reservations, this is, for the most part, the story I wanted it to be.
The first few chapters alternate between the present and the past, as we’re shown the events that culminate in the long-absent Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, striding into the male bastion that is the House of Lords and demanding a divorce. Her husband is as shocked to see her as everyone else; he hasn’t seen or heard from her in the two years and seven months since she left him, and it’s very clear when we see in him in the opening scene that he has felt her absence every hour of every day of every one of those years and months.
Haven and Sera met three years earlier and were both immediately smitten. I’m not calling it insta-love; it’s more like a coup de foudre, a lightning strike that affects both of them deeply and draws them together, and is based on far more than simple, physical attraction. Over the ensuing weeks, Sera and Haven see each other quite often; so often, in fact, as to draw the attention of the gossips. With none of their meetings taking place in public and Haven not even having made the attempt to meet her family, Sera is swayed by the seeds of doubt that her mother plants in her mind. When Lady Talbot suggests that Sera engineers a situation that will make sure of Haven once and for all, Sera, who is confident in her heart that Haven does want to marry her, and is just as sure that he is everything she wants, agrees to a secret tryst with him. When they are found in an extremely compromising position by her mother – and his – Sera can’t deny her part in the scheme, but instead of it leading to something both of them want, it’s the beginning of the end. Haven is deeply in love with Sera and had every intention of proposing to her, but now he’s in the middle of his worst nightmare; being forced to wed a woman who doesn’t want him for himself but for his title.
Haven is deeply hurt; he thought Sera genuinely cared for him but instead he’s trapped in a replay of his parents’ miserable marriage which was made under similar circumstances, and, as happens in such situations, he lashes out, telling Sara they will never live together or have a family and makes all sorts of horrible accusations. Not unsurprisingly, she runs, and the next time they see each other is the day of the ill-fated fishpond fracas – when Haven discovers his wife is pregnant. Furious at himself because he still longs for her so badly, and furious at her for obviously having had no intention of advising him of her condition, Haven sets out to exact revenge on her in the worst way possible. Which is where we came in in The Rogue Not Taken.
I know there will be a number of readers who flat out refuse to read a book in which the hero has cheated on the heroine – but before you throw your hands up in horror, it doesn’t happen on the page, and while I don’t condone it, I can understand why it happened. If it’s any inducement to give the book a chance, Haven pays a heavy price, several times over, for that single mistake – and Ms. MacLean does an utterly splendid job of redeeming him and turning him into a hero one can root for.
Fate isn’t finished with the couple, though, because Sera miscarries their child. In her despair, the one person she wants by her side is Haven, and the scenes which follow are truly heartbreaking; but even then, they are prevented from grieving together owing to the meddling of a third party, and as soon as she is well enough, Sera leaves the estate and England, without a word to her husband.
But after two years and seven months of searching – and Haven has travelled the world searching for Sera – she is back in London, as beautiful and self-possessed as ever, and Haven is determined to win her back. He has never stopped loving her or wanting her, and believes that if they can just talk to each other and work through all the bitterness and pain of the past, they will be able to find a way back to each other. So he devises a scheme; he will give Sera her divorce IF she will help him find his next Duchess. Of course, he has no intention of taking another wife, but it’s the only thing he can come up with at short notice to get Sera to leave London and come home. He fails to take into account the fact that where one ‘Soiled S’ goes, others are sure to follow; Sera brings reinforcements with her in the form of all four of her sisters, all of whom would string him up as soon as look at him.
I admit that the idea of a wife-finding-house-party did make me roll my eyes, but the scenes that occur between the selected debutantes, their mothers and Sera’s sisters serve to lighten the overall tone, and provide some much-needed humour. The relationship between the sisters is nicely done, and Haven and Sera do get to share some moments of truth and intimacy, even though most of the time Sera takes care to use her sisters as a shield between her and her husband, which I found somewhat frustrating.
Apart from a few other niggles, Sarah MacLean has delivered an excellent second-chance romance in which the characters are fully developed and multi-faceted, and in which the central relationship is complicated, messy and full of raw, visceral emotion. The yearning Haven and Sera feel for each other is palpable and their heartbreak and anguish over the loss of their child is deeply affecting (there’s a scene fairly late on related to this that had me in tears). Sera has worked hard to close herself off emotionally, but even so, she is unable to deny just how strongly she still longs for her husband’s love, and Haven is similarly lost to his own craving for Sera’s. These two badly damaged souls have a long way to go if they are to make a future together, and it’s certainly not a comfortable or easy journey. But there’s no doubt that their eventual HEA is hard won and thoroughly deserved.
So why haven’t I awarded the book DIK status? I thought about it, believe me, but there are a couple of issues which kept nagging at me and which, ultimately, made me go for the B+. Sera’s sisters are too often used as a convenient way of preventing Sera and Haven from having a pertinent conversation, and there were times I found Sera hard to like or sympathise with. When we first meet her, she is poised, confident, and self-assured, so I find it hard to believe that she accepted Haven’s dismissal after their wedding so easily. She’s hurting too, of course, yet her meek acceptance of his edict doesn’t fit with the picture that Ms. MacLean has painted of her. At several points throughout the book, Sera thinks “he never wanted me” and yet she and Haven have spent zero time together since their marriage, and she is making sure they don’t do so now – so how can she really know what he thinks? It’s her own cowardice keeping them apart, and I was pleased when Sophie called Sera on it later in the story. The emotions and reactions displayed by both protagonists feel very realistic, but some of them are based on assumptions that are too obviously there to serve the demands of the plot.
But once one has accepted the premise, The Day of the Duchess is a well-written, passionate and insightful story, full of heartbreak, hope, redemption and love lost and won. Sera and Haven are two very flawed, very human characters who have to go to hell and back but who emerge from the flames stronger and bound together even more deeply than before.
Even with my reservations, this is the story I wanted to read. Thank you, Ms. MacLean, for writing it.
Buy it at Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes and Noble/Kobo
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