The Duke and the Lady in Red
I’ve read and enjoyed the previous books in this trilogy – When the Duke Was Wicked and Once More My Darling Rogue, finding both to be enjoyable with strongly written central characters and well developed romances. My favourite by a nose is the first, which is a really emotional read that delivered more than one metaphorical punch to the gut and made me tear up several times.
I was surprised when The Duke and the Lady in Red produced a similar emotional reaction (albeit for different reasons), because when I started reading, it seemed to be a variation on a theme: wealthy, handsome, arrogant aristocrat with-a-trauma-in-his-past-that-makes-him-eschew-the-finer-emotions-and-hide-his-true-nature-behind-a mask-of-the-dissipated-scoundrel meets and is intrigued by an adventurous-widow-who-doesn’t-swoon-at-his-feet-or-seem-as-though-she’ll-succumb-to-his-charms-without-a-lengthy-chase. But I don’t mind tropes when they are handled skilfully, so I settled in for an enjoyable – if predictable read – with just the teeniest bit of disappointment at the thought that this book wasn’t going to live up to the standards set by the other two.
How wrong I was. Yes, the Duke of Avendale is immensely rich, immensely arrogant – and immensely bored. He’s reached a point at which nothing much interests him; he indulges in drink, women and gambling almost automatically and takes little pleasure in anything, until one evening, he glimpses a striking woman he’s never seen before, wearing a seductively cut red dress and falls immediately into lust with her. Accustomed to getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, Avendale relishes the fact that here is a woman who doesn’t throw herself at him, and thus begins a rather deliciously sexy game of cat and mouse. Mrs Rosalind Sharpe is a widow recently returned to England following the death of her husband in India – or at least that’s the story she’s putting around. In fact, she’s a con artist looking for her next mark, and even though she senses that Avendale has the potential to ruin her in more ways than one, she’s as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and she can’t resist the idea of getting close enough to him to get what she wants while knowing she’ll have to be on her mettle if she’s to avoid succumbing to his seduction.
The sparks fly immediately, and it’s a wonder my Kindle didn’t short-circuit from the onslaught of the heat between them! Avendale fully expects that once he’s slaked his lust for Rose, he’ll tire of her, just as with all the other women he’s bedded, and Rose is perfectly aware of that fact. But even so, when he uncovers her deception and furiously demands she spends a week in his bed, she can’t find it in herself to refuse. It’s true that he threatens to expose her as a thief and swindler, but there’s more to it than that for Rose, because she wants to be with him. For all her adult life, has never had time for a life of her own or been able to put her own needs and wants first. Avendale’s dangerous sensuality enthrals her, the knowledge that there’s another man behind the mask of the debauched scoundrel intrigues her – and everything about him combines to make her want to know what’s behind it.
So far, so predictable – until suddenly, the author pulls a blinder in the form of Rose’s brother, Harry. He’s the one Rose has been trying so hard to protect, the one for whom she’s been scheming and stealing ever since they ran away from their abusive father when Rose was seventeen and Harry a couple of years younger. I don’t want to give away too much, but Harry is a wonderful character, a young man who hasn’t been able to have a normal life due to illness. It does perhaps require rather a large suspension of disbelief to credit that Avendale, the ultimate selfish bastard, befriends him and goes way above and beyond the call of duty to show him kindness and even to bond with him; but it’s an easy suspension to make because of the way Ms Heath uses their friendship to tell us as much about Avendale as she does about Harry. And the fact that Avendale has been written – up to this point – as a man who doesn’t know how desperate he is for real companionship (or one who knows, but won’t admit it, even to himself) makes this part of the book perfectly believable. We’re finally shown the man he could, should and would be, were it not for a youthful misunderstanding – a man with a huge capacity for love and kindness who has not had an outlet for either.
It was this aspect of the book that floored me and left me unable to pick up another book for at least twenty-four hours. The romance is very well done, it’s true, but it’s Harry’s story – and indirectly Avendale’s journey towards self-discovery – that made the deepest impression on me.
Rose and Avendale are strongly drawn characters and the push-and-pull between them is brilliantly written as both of them struggle to make sense of a relationship borne out of the debt of one to the other. Their verbal exchanges are like beautifully choreographed fencing bouts – both of them circling, advancing and retreating in a way which is both utterly enthralling and frustrating, yet wonderful to read. Avendale quickly realises he wants Rose to be with him because she wants to be and not out of any sense of obligation. Rose is pragmatic, convinced that once she’s gone, it’ll be “out of sight out of mind”, for Avendale, and is determined to make the most of the time they have. Her easy acceptance of their circumstances send the wrong signals to Avendale, who is, beneath the arrogance, someone with little sense of self-worth, and unable to believe that Rose would be with him were it not for her indebtnedness to him.
The Duke and the Lady in Red is a beautifully written and highly emotional read that really tugs at the heartstrings. What started out as a re-tread of familiar tropes is skilfully turned into something far richer and multi-layered; and most of all, Ms Heath made me care about her characters so that I was compelled to keep reading. I deliberated over the final grade for my review for a while, but because I had a couple of issues – mostly to do with the nature of the trauma in Avendale’s past and its resolution – it’s missed the DIK bracket by a hairsbreadth. But even so, it’s a very enjoyable book and one I’m strongly recommending.