The Illegitimate Duke
Sophie Barnes’ Diamonds in the Rough series continues with the sensual but imperfect The Illegitimate Duke, about two society wallflowers who find love in a deeper place.
Lady Juliette Matthews, raised from a nightmarish and slavish poverty to her second London season thanks to the death of a distant relative which promoted her brother to a dukedom, must obey society’s rules as she attends the first ball of the season, though she loathes being yet another pretty and silly ornament on the dance floor. Among the other women who have come out during her season very few have snagged a proper husband, but Juliette has no desire to do the same. Not when she’s attracted to Florian Lowell.
Florian is a popular, handsome and dedicated doctor who has become Duke of Redding unexpectedly and in an extremely unlikely way. Apparently, the previous duke had no heirs, so petitioned the King for permission to name his successor, who happened to be Florian, his nephew through his sister; but the various websites I turned up in a Google search told me this couldn’t happen. Also dodgy is the fact that Florian’s ducal connection is through his mother and peerages don’t usually descend through the female line – but anyway, he’s become a duke, which means both hero AND heroine have been thrust into unexpected high social positions! What are the chances? Florian is being forced to observe the season’s social niceties while complaining about them the entire time he’s experiencing them, preferring to spend as much time as he can at his practice.
Juliette decides to donate her services and allowance to St. Agnes’ hospital in St. Giles, which is experiencing a severe typhus outbreak. Her hefty monetary gift allows her a position on the hospital’s board of trustees, thus giving her life a shape and meaning. Florian is naturally on the board of trustees as well, which puts them into each other’s orbits and allows them to fantasize about one another.
But Florian will not allow himself to propose to Juliette for fear of the dark secret in his past resurfacing; he is the biological son of one of the most notorious criminals in all of London’s history – and the man substituted another at his hanging and is currently performing deeds most foul in the city. Bartholomew’s goal is to take over both the district of St. Giles and get revenge on Florian for turning against him, and he will do anything – including hurting Juliette – to get what he wants. As typhus rages through the city and Bartholomew schemes, Florian and Juliette begin to battle their way toward one another – for better or for worse.
The Illegitimate Duke has a few good things going for it, mostly its slow-building romance, but its inconsistencies cause it to fall short of the mark.
Florian is… depressing, in a word. He is dark and angsty and brooding about how much his job means to him. Eventually he gets to show his more light-hearted side but it takes a while, so if you like your heroes darker in nature he might be more your type than he is mine.
Juliette is forthright, carving and brave; she’s not afraid to actually get her hands dirty, which is a super appealing quality. Unfortunately, she’s yet another maiden who is Not Like Those Other Society Girls and gets her fulfillment through charity work. It’s fine to like society frippery AND be into charity, and I don’t know why authors must insist that these two things cannot go together.
The romance is a decent slow-burner with a lot of tension. Juliette and Florian spend a lot of time downright mooning over one another before actually consummating their relationship. And there’s many, many delightful steps along the way that brings the relationship to a proper boil without spoiling the pot – including our heroine actually masturbating while thinking of the hero! That’s a downright advancement from those olden days where heroes wouldn’t even touch a girl’s sacred Pearl of Pleasure. Meanwhile, Florian’s hands shake when he thinks of Juliette; there’s something nice about his hands shake from emotion in reaction to Juliette versus him getting the traditional hard-on in response to her, although it did occur to me to worry about how well he could treat his patients if his hands shook when he got nervous!
The worst part of the novel? Bartholomew, who is the most two-dimensional, boring, cackling villain I’ve ever had the displeasure to encounter. If he’d had some depth or humanity to him I might have rated the book more highly, but he’s terribly dull. The other secondary characters worked well enough; I liked the intimidating, matchmaking dowager duchess Viola and Vivien, Juliette’s spunky best friend.
I have to give the author some credit for doing a good job capturing the rudimentary nature of medicine in the regency era; unfortunately everything else about the period seems to trip her up. While the medical stuff helped add some extra oomph to the general thrust of the story, which is strongly character based and quite romantic, the details just slaughter it. There is a lot of darkness; a lot of almost gothic darkness, with our heroine and our hero nursing many vulnerable types through typhus. And not everyone makes it to the end.
The Illegitimate Duke is highly flawed. The swoony romance just couldn’t overcome the clichés, melodrama and cartoonish villain, all of which combined to prove the novel’s undoing.