The Duchess Takes a Lover
Grade : B-

This novella takes readers on a journey through the rocky marriage of Mara and Ambrose, Duke and Duchess of Southwick. With a fair amount of old-school storytelling and plenty of steamy moments, the story revolves around a troubled marriage in need of healing. I read it in an evening and can say it's... fine. Too short and the storyline doesn't really make sense but if you're looking for throwback romance, Eaton is here for you.

It does, however, get off to an awful start.

Three gossipy ladies of the ton are at the dressmaker's and, whew, are they cattily portrayed. One is large and loud, the other flat-chested and obsessed with cats. The third has breasts ruined by time and six kids. They're unimaginatively named: Lady Harmsworth, Lady Topple, and Lady Farthing. Lady Harmsworth shares the gossip that the reclusive Lady Southwick--she has not been to town since her wedding eighteen months ago--has decided to come to town and take a lover. The three women are just so meanly portrayed and I'm pretty sure the modes of address--and, really, I don't care about this--are incorrect. But, thankfully, once we leave the three busybodies, the book becomes much better.

This rumor, of course, quickly reaches Adrian, the Duke of Southerland at his club. And though Adrian acts bored by this news--he's dickish enough to say he wishes whomever could get in his ice cold wife's bed good luck--he is anything but. His internal response can be summed up by three words: No fucking way.

Next we meet the very nice Mara who, when we meet her, is gardening at Southwick Castle, the estate her husband dumped her in after a disastrous wedding night. Mara learns of the rumor sweeping London from her sister Kitty who comes to ask her sister "what the hell?" Mara explains that she does want to take a lover but in turns out she was thinking lover could mean companion. Her one experience with the marital bed was so dreadful she sure doesn't want to do THAT again. No, Mara, is tired of her lonely existence in the country estate and wants companionship. Kitty, wonderfully brash and fearless, tells her she's out of her mind. She's duchess for god's sake and she's shy and likes to follow the rules. Cheating, even if she's not looking for sex, is out. Mara is undeterred. She thinks--and the reader doesn't blame her--her husband is a cold, cruel man who doesn't give a fig about her. She suspects that he has affairs right and left so why would he care if she did the same.

She, it turns out, is wrong on both accounts.

Now, look, you've read this story a million times. Ambrose is DAMAGED from an abusive bad dad childhood. His father taught him, when Ambrose was eight, that caring for anyone is a weakness and DUKES ARE NOT WEAK. Thus, Ambrose has spent his whole life making sure he doesn't give a fuck about anyone--he's a big enough jerk to take it a step farther: Cross him and he ruins you. He's a man in desperate need of finding his shriveled heart, although having a heart is his worst nightmare. He married Mara because she fit the bill for a duchess and he was sure he'd never care for her or even, after she conceived his heir, have to see her again. He is emotionally scarred and, though the reader can see why, he is a much bigger dick than most modern historical romance heroes. (I liked this. Sue me.)

Mara, pre-marriage, was a virgin and she who still doesn't understand why the handsome, powerful Duke decided to court and marry her. She and Kitty had an violent father who beat their mother to death. She learned from an early age to fear men. She keeps to herself--her sister is the beautiful, vivacious one--and, when she thought about marriage, she just wanted a nice, quiet life with someone who was kind. Instead, she ends up wed to Adrian whom she fell in love with almost immediately because 1) he told her she was pretty and she believed him and 2) the two have we just met sparks that turn into a bonfire the first time they kiss.

However, despite several passionate embraces before marriage, on their wedding night, Mara just lay there and thought it hurt terribly and Adrian, drunk, stupid, and remarkably clueless and insensitive to the whole virgin thing, botched his part. In the morning--and you just have to go with it--he was embarrassed that he'd done poorly and despite Mara saying--she really liked all their premarital antics--she'd like to try again, he is dismissive, rude, and leaves his marriage. (At one point, before the rumor, he muses to himself that, at some point, he'll have to address the whole heir thing but NOT RIGHT NOW BECAUSE THAT WOULD INVOLVE FEELINGS. Not to mention an apology.)

So, here we have a wallpaper historical, a hero who behaves stupidly for REASONS, and a bride who has decided SHE MATTERS. And, if you're fine with that set up--and I am--this is a fun, hot read. Even though their behavior--especially his--doesn't make a ton of sense, Mara and Ambrose are very sexy and sweet together. Mara learns to stand up for herself and Ambrose learns his defence mechanisms are ruinous and that, who knew?!?!, love and hot sex with a person you allow yourself to love are THE BOMB. There are lots of swoony love scenes and a fair amount of angst--the few hours I spent reading this book were mindless fun and, honestly, I am all for fun.

I am sure there are some historical inaccuracies that will irk AAR's historically detail-oriented readers--again, NOT ME!--but for those who miss old-skool heroes and heroines whose passions overwhelm them, The Duchess Takes a Lover will work. And I am invested in Kitty's story--this book's last chapter eases us in to her story which I now want to read.

Eaton's latest isn't a stunner but it's not bad. If you can get past the slight context, the story is reasonable well-written, the leads engaging, and the sex, hot. I suspect many of its limits are due to its length. Here's hoping Kitty's story has more heft, literally and figuratively.

Reviewed by Dabney Grinnan
Grade : B-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : February 8, 2024

Publication Date: 02/2024

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Dabney Grinnan

Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day. Publisher at AAR.
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