I hesitate to describe Karen Ranney’s latest offering, The English Duke as being part of a series, because really, it’s a standalone novel that doesn’t feature any characters or continue any plotlines from the author’s last book, The Scottish Duke. The titles are similar, of course (the forthcoming third book is The American Duke) and there are a number of common plot elements; the hero is a scientist and there’s an evil “other woman” character, for instance. I’m not sure if the similarities are deliberate – a way of providing a link between the books - or just accidental, but whatever the case, I enjoyed this one enough to feel happy recommending it.
Martha York’s father was a scientist and inventor of some renown. Upon his death, he left his large fortune to his two daughters, and bequeathed his prototypes and notes on his latest project to his protégé and long-time collaborator, Jordan Hamilton, the Duke of Roth. York and the duke had corresponded for years, since before Jordan, a former naval officer, inherited his title, so Martha was both upset and annoyed when the duke failed to respond to her father’s request that Jordan visit before he died. The one communication Martha has received tersely informed her that the duke did not want her father’s bequest, and she can’t understand it. Over the years, she was privy to the correspondence between Jordan and her father, and feels she came to know and understand him a little through his words. She knows he was as invested in their current project – to develop a working torpedo-ship – as her father was. Why then, is he so emphatic about refusing her father’s dying wish?
She decides that if the duke won’t come to her, then she will go to him and arranges to travel to his estate, Sedgebrook, accompanied by her younger half-sister, Josephine, and their grandmother. Martha intends to deliver the numerous boxes and files her father left, stay at the village inn overnight and travel back the next day, but when her grandmother is taken ill, there is no alternative but for the ladies to accept the duke’s (somewhat begrudging) offer of hospitality.
Jordan Hamilton was never meant to be a duke. A second son, he made his career in the Navy and then at the War Office (in the department that was eventually to become the Intelligence Division) and inherited his title following the death of his older brother – discovering only then that both brother and father had dipped deep and left him with a large estate but not the means to pay for its upkeep. Not long after that, he had a serious riding accident which crushed his leg; the doctors said he’d never walk again, but he has proven them wrong through sheer bloody-mindedness, although he has to use a cane and still suffers a lot of pain. He’s not gregarious – as his brother was – much preferring his own company and “tinkering” with his various scientific projects which, of which, at the moment, the development of the torpedo-ship is the most important.
When Mrs. York is taken ill, Jordan is too gentlemanly not to allow the ladies to stay but he isn’t happy about it. The younger York sister, Josephine is beautiful but shallow, her mind full of fashion and the latest on-dits, things that don’t interest Jordan at all, but Martha… Martha is a completely different matter. She acted as her father’s assistant and is as knowledgeable about the torpedo-ship and as at home fiddling with cogs and springs or hammering out bits of copper as Jordan is. She’s inquisitive, clever and forthright but is still a woman of her time, feeling out of step because she doesn’t care much about clothes or finding a husband. The friendship that develops between Jordan and Martha is one born of mutual respect and common interests, and the author does a fabulous job of showing their growing attraction and most especially of imbuing their scenes together with a palpable sense of longing and tenderness.
If left to themselves, there’s no doubt these two lonely, unusual people would have eventually come together, but Josephine has set her sights on becoming a duchess and mistress of Sedgebrook and will do anything in order to achieve that aim. I know that some readers are not fond of the “evil other woman” trope, and I admit that I did roll my eyes a bit (mostly because, as I said at the beginning, there’s an “evil OW” in the previous book, too) but actually, it works well to heighten the tension in the story. Josephine is selfish, spoiled and treats Martha like dirt – but I like a bit of melodrama sometimes, and she’s certainly one of those characters one can love to hate while eagerly awaiting their comeuppance.
Fortunately, the author has mostly avoided the trap of making Josephine so flamboyant a character that she eclipses Martha. Martha is definitely more subdued, but there’s a quiet dignity about her that means, even when she’s at her lowest ebb, she doesn’t come across as hopelessly weak – just uncertain and a little vulnerable.
As a romantic hero, Jordan stands out from the regular crop of arrogant man-whores or roguish gambling club owners; he’s scientifically minded, and, in spite of his outwardly grumpy demeanour, rather sweet and perhaps a little introverted. I also loved the idea that he and Martha had come to know each other through the letters he exchanged with her father; I’m a big fan of stories in which letters play an important part, and although we only get snippets of the correspondence in the novel, the glimpses we do get are significant and reveal something important about both characters.
The downside is perhaps that the protagonists are a bit too nice, and that the sub-plot concerning Jordan’s friend, Reese, is a little thin and not followed through. However, I did enjoy the parts of the story that dealt with the torpedo-ship which, per Ms. Ranney’s Author’s Note was something that was actually around at the time, and had been used in a primitive form during the Crimean War.
The English Duke is an entertaining and sweetly romantic story about two misfits finding each other and having to overcome a few bumps along the way. The plot is perhaps a little hackneyed, but the most important thing is that the author has crafted a beautiful sense of emotional intimacy between the central characters, which is, after all, one of the main things I - and I suspect, most of us here – look for in a romance.
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