Desert Isle Keeper
The Duke I Tempted
As we all know, début novels are notoriously hit-or-miss, so I’m delighted to tell you The Duke I Tempted fits squarely in the ‘hit’ column. Deeply moving, tender, and romantic, this is the first novel in Scarlett Peckham’s Secrets of Charlotte Street series. Charlotte Street is home to an exclusive, secret club where – if they’re willing to sign a confession of membership, and can afford the exorbitant membership fees – the crème de la crème of English society can go to indulge their secret erotic desires and fantasies.
Poplar – Poppy – Cavendish is an ambitious, self-taught botanist, determined to prove herself as a businesswoman. Orphaned as a young girl and sent to live with her Uncle Charles at his Bantham Park estate, she’s painstakingly built up her exotic nursery business, soliciting specimens from the farthest corners of the world. When Charles dies, she expects to inherit his personal fortune. Only, there isn’t one. Instead, she’s inherited Greenwoods cottage, the only part of the estate not entailed. With a new heir scheduled to take possession of Bantham Park in two weeks, she needs to move her entire nursery to Greenwoods two miles away – but with little money to hire help, and most of the local labor otherwise engaged anyway, Poppy is quietly desperate but determined to persevere.
When Archer Stonewell, the Duke of Westmead, and his sister, Lady Constance, unexpectedly show up in Poppy’s greenhouse, she’s startled and annoyed by their unexpected visit. Lady Constance has been in Wiltshire overseeing the renovation of Westhaven, the family estate left empty following a devastating fire thirteen years ago, and she’s the reason no laborers are available for hire to help Poppy. She also has plans for a spectacular ball when the work is done, and Poppy has repeatedly refused her requests to take on a floral design commission for it. She politely, yet firmly, declines again – explaining she’s already otherwise engaged, and that hers is a nursery, and not a floral society. Westhaven, a successful businessman and investor, listens to the exchange, and then smugly suggests a wise businesswoman would negotiate a solution to the impasse. His condescension irks her, but by the end of the visit, Poppy has a steward and workers to transport the nursery, and the promise of enough money to fund her business for the foreseeable future, in exchange for her design services.
As preparations for the ball get underway, Poppy and Archer (as he insists she call him) fight their mutual attraction (a losing battle). For Poppy, the feelings of longing and desire are new – and frustrating. Inadvertently finding a worn book of illicit illustrations hidden amongst the pages of a botany book in Archer’s study, she can’t help peeking inside. The book is scandalous, and Poppy is aroused – especially by the images depicting a man submitting to his (female) partner – and can’t help imagining herself and Archer in the same poses. Archer’s imagination is conjuring up its own erotic pictures… whenever he lets his guard down. Try as he might, he can’t seem to control his reactions to Poppy, but he simply can’t allow his admiration for her deter him from his purpose – finding a wife and begetting an heir. His marriage will be a business transaction only – he doesn’t want any emotional attachments.
Poppy and Archer have a VERY hard time keeping their hands off each other, and ultimately, their erotic interludes leave Poppy confused and hurt. Archer is passionate and open… until he retreats and turns into a remote and detached stranger. Shortly before he plans to return to London, they reconcile and part as friends, but when rumors surface that insinuate there’s more to their relationship than just business, Poppy faces ruin, and as Archer needs a wife and heir, he proposes they marry. Poppy declines initially, but when Archer makes it plain that their marriage will be a business arrangement, she changes her mind and – against her better judgement – accepts.
The Duke I Tempted is a bit tricky to review because I don’t want to tell you about the tragedy in Archer’s past, and how it – and his guilt over it – completely informs how he relates to Poppy and explains why he is the way he is. He ruthlessly represses all emotion in business and in his personal life, and when he can’t, he visits Charlotte Street. There, on his knees submitting, he’s able to channel all those wayward emotions and feelings and focus instead on the pain – emerging cleansed, whole… and in control.
The more he shaped himself into a man who would not fail again, the more vital the release became. He no longer craved the pain itself so much as the abandonment, the feeling of her power over him, the floor beneath his fingers. What had begun as penance had become a sacrament. He was grateful for it. It had saved him. It had taught him who he was.
Poppy, who knows nothing about Charlotte Street or her husband’s submissive desires, is bewildered by their ‘business arrangement.’ Archer is eager to consummate the marriage and quick to introduce her to the joy and exhilaration of sex. The first twenty-four – idyllic – hours of their marriage are mostly spent naked, in each other’s arms, but when Poppy expresses curiosity about the scars on Archer’s back (some still healing), he shuts down and castigates her for wanting more from him than they agreed he would give.
He did not wish to imagine what his country nurserywoman, with her scent of grass and dewy skin and twenty-five years of self-discipline and moral rectitude would make of a man who sometimes longed to tremble on his knees. What was solace to him was to the greater world perversion.
Hurt and proud, Poppy gives as good as she gets – sex for the purpose of procreation and nothing else.
Archer delivers on all his professional promises, and Poppy’s nursery business flourishes. But along the way, Poppy has fallen in love with her husband and despairs of their joyless union. It’s clear he wants and desires her, but she can’t understand why he insists on keeping her at a distance other than when they’re in bed. She suspects there are things he isn’t telling her, but he steadfastly refuses all of her attempts at emotional connection. Poppy has suspicions about the secret he’s keeping, and implores him to trust her with the truth, but Archer fears losing her if he confesses his secret desires.
I love a steamy historical, and I very much enjoyed the BDSM elements here, but I realize it’s not for everyone. There are very few actual D/s scenes, and those that appear are meaningful and essential to the story. In The Duke I Tempted, our alpha heroine is unconventional, ferociously independent, ambitious and talented; her hero is a handsome, charming, smart and savvy businessman whose past heartbreak has led him to suppress and repress his emotions. The alliance is unexpected, fascinating and a refreshing departure from typical Regency romances, and I never wanted The Duke I Tempted to end.