Desert Isle Keeper
The Duke of Dark Desires
Miranda Neville’s books have been a bit hit and miss for me in the past. I wasn’t too keen on the first book in this series (The Importance of Being Wicked), although I loved the prequel novella (The Second Seduction of a Lady) and while it had its weaknesses, I enjoyed her last book (Lady Windermere’s Lover). But The Duke of Dark Desires hands down worked for me and then some. It doesn’t hurt that the story pushes some of my favourite buttons; bad boys made good are like catnip, and I’m also partial to an aristocrat/governess story (although this is a bit more complicated than that). Ms Neville also picks up the plot threads she left unresolved at the end of the last book (although it’s not absolutely necessary to have read it, as this works as a stand-alone) and ties everything up in a nice big bow, presenting readers with a very satisfying conclusion to the series.
Julian Fortescue has travelled extensively and made his living as an art dealer – a fairly successful one with a real passion for the wheeling and dealing involved in buying and selling as well as for the works of art themselves. As the scion of a minor branch of the family, he never expected to inherit anything – but became the Duke of Denford because of a completely unexpected and unfortunate series of illnesses and accidents that befell his numerous male relations. The trouble was, given that he was very much the black sheep of the family, his remaining (mostly female!) relatives decided to contest his accession, meaning that for the past two years, he’s been a very impoverished duke. When the book opens, he has finally reached a financial settlement with them which means that he now has the funds necessary to live in style and maintain his estates.
Finding himself suddenly responsible for his three younger half-sisters, Julian decides he needs to hire someone to look after them so he can have as little to do with them as possible, so he advertises for a governess. He takes one look at Miss Jane Grey and decides she can have the position – although the positions he has in mind are principally horizontal ones!
But the prim, proper Miss Grey is not what she seems. In reality, she is Jeanne de Falleron, the one surviving member of a family of French aristocrats whose parents and two younger sisters were guillotined during the Terror. She has travelled to London in search of one particular Mr. Fortescue, the man she believes responsible for betraying her family a decade earlier, and is determined to exact a terrible and final revenge. She believes that by taking a position in the home of the head of the Fortescue family, she will be able to find the man she seeks.
The relationship between Julian and Jane is brilliantly written and hits its stride right off the bat. Their verbal cat-and-mouse games are a real delight, and because it’s very clear that Jane knows exactly what Julian is up to – and feels the pull of the intense physical attraction between them every bit as much as he does – there’s none of the power imbalance between them that can make a master/servant romance a bit difficult to take. Jane responds in kind to Julian’s flirting and challenges him – and obviously enjoys it – even though she knows that ending up in his bed is probably not a good idea.
Jane is an engaging and well-developed character whose pragmatism has sustained her through some terrible times. After she lost her family, she had to make some horrible decisions in order to survive, but she refuses to feel ashamed about them or see herself as a victim. The relationships she develops with Julian’s sisters are well-drawn and are not overly sweet or twee; she recognises that while they need affection, they also need someone to set boundaries. Each of the three girls (aged nine to fifteen) is a recognisable individual, even if they’re perhaps just a teeny bit stereotypical; there’s the one who will soon enter society and become a young lady, the sullen middle one and the young moppet – but despite that, they’re all very likeable.
Julian is a great hero – smart, sexy and under no illusions about himself. He doesn’t have the best of reputations; in fact he spent most of the last book in the series trying to seduce his former best friend’s wife! He had a wild, rebellious youth, and his good looks and charm have ensured him plenty of female companionship over the years. But he’s not your typical rake who shags his way through town in order to assuage his man-pain or because he doesn’t want anything to do with that touchy-feely-emotional -girly crap. Julian is more the sort of man who simply enjoys good living and pleasurable activities, and he’s pleasantly self-aware, especially when it comes to his immediate desire to get Jane into bed. ”Besides, no one expected Julian to behave properly, least of all himself”
He’s cultivated his mad, bad and dangerous to know reputation, but deep down, he’s a decent man, haunted by his (unwitting) part in a tragic event, and who recognizes that he now has responsibilities that he needs to fulfil. Not least of those is that to his sisters, although he has no idea exactly what he’s supposed to do with them! But as the book progresses, Ms. Neville creates a really warm and caring relationship between them, with Julian pretending not to be interested while teasing them in a “big brotherly” kind of way that shows them the complete opposite.
The romance is sensual and well-developed, and I particularly liked the comfortable domesticity that evolves between Julian and Jane during their after-dinner meetings. There’s plenty of humour and the plotline concerning the paintings and Julian’s guilt over the events of a decade ago is intriguing and satisfactorily resolved. My one reservation about that aspect of the story is that the way the villain is disposed of is a little over the top, but other than that, The Duke of Dark Desires is a terrific read, and one I recommend most highly.