Desert Isle Keeper
The Duke Who Loved Me
The Duke Who Loved Me treads familiar ground for fans of Jane Ashford, though it has excellent momentum and is hopefully the beginning of another great series.
James Cantrell has inherited a dukedom, only to discover a mess. His great-uncle, the late duke, had some kind of madness and left his home in a shambles, filling it with garbage without any rhyme or reason. Horrified by the debris and overcome by the enormity of his new responsibilities, James has a brilliant idea: he’ll marry the right kind of woman, one who can sort out the mess without him having to overextend himself. Fortunately, he knows just the one.
Lady Cecelia is the woman James has singled out to be his duchess. They have been acquainted for years, as she is the daughter of his former guardian. Cecelia is supremely competent, not only does she manage her father’s household, but his holdings and estate as well. Before James’ majority, he and Cecelia butted heads about estate matters and had any number of arguments. Still, James knows Cecelia is the one to handle the disaster that has fallen into his lap. So, he straightforwardly proposes a marriage of convenience, only to be shot down when Cecelia refuses.
Cecelia is unwed at twenty-three because she does not want a marriage without love. Though she hasn’t been any great social success, she is still considered decently marriageable, despite her age. Despite loving James, she won’t enter a marriage such as he describes, and James is forced to rethink his strategy if he truly desires to wed her. Complicating matters, a German princeling makes a splash in the ton, giving James a run for his money and trying to capture Cecelia’s attention. When the rivalry between the two men heats up, controversy and gossip follow, leaving polite society to wonder who Cecelia will choose.
Cecelia is an excellent heroine, and I loved how sensible and down-to-earth she is. Cecelia is incredibly aware of her value and doesn’t let anyone treat her poorly. She refuses to take guff from James, which really shows us her backbone, and asserts herself well throughout the book. The only place she has difficulty with that is in her relationship with her father and aunt, but by the end of the story she comes to a better place with that as well. James is great too; his transformation from dandy about town to a man coming to terms with his new responsibilities is excellent. And that happens realistically, following an epiphany about his place in society and how others see him. James also slowly comes to grips with changes in himself and what he wants, which is compelling and feels honest. I loved the secondary characters, who all do a good bit of heavy-lifting in terms of moving the plot along. The family members are distinct and often eccentric, the villain is eminently hateable, and the protagonists’ friends feel well-fleshed out. For a book with a lot of characters, this story does a great job differentiating between them.
I do have a few small nit-picks though. The Duke Who Loved Me isn’t a big departure from a lot of Ashford’s previous work, and A Lord Apart, which came out in 2019, also features a heroine with a knack for organization who is wooed by a peer and assists him with his bungled estate. The books have different plots and driving forces, but that detail and the emphasis in the narrative on it did feel a bit recycled. Secondly, the ending is very abrupt. The final conflict between the main characters is resolved in the last scene, almost on the last page. While the larger plot has already wound down, this feels very sudden and took me out of my enjoyment of the end. I don’t need an ending that wraps up all loose ends, especially as this is the first in a series, but the final tension being released on the last page left me a little thrown.
I did really enjoy The Duke Who Loved Me, and found it to be a well-paced and intense read. It’s strongly character focused without sacrificing plot, and it’s very much worth reading.