The Most Dangerous Duke in London
Madeline Hunter begins her Decadent Dukes Society series with an engaging, slow-burn romance. The Most Dangerous Duke in London takes its time building a relationship between the main characters while drawing the reader deeper into rivalries and intrigues simmering between two influential London families.
Receiving a summons from the Countess of Marwood is something of a surprise to Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton. For generations, the Penrose and Cheswick families have been at odds, so the Countess’ desire to heal the old wounds is immediately suspect. Arriving at her home it becomes clear that the Countess is scheming to protect her grandson, the new Earl of Marwood, against rumors that Adam has returned to England to settle old scores and investigate the circumstances that led to the previous Duke of Stratton’s death. Hoping to align the two families through marriage, the Countess offers Adam a betrothal to her seventeen year old granddaughter; however it is the elder granddaughter, Lady Clara Cheswick, who catches his attention when she gives him the cut direct rather than giving him an audience. Intrigued, Adam’s interest grows as Clara makes it very clear that she doesn’t approve of her sister being offered as a sacrificial bride. Impressed and just the smallest bit aroused by her unaffected manner towards him, Adam decides then and there that Clara is the Cheswick woman that he wants. He also hopes that Clara’s close relationship with her late father might allow for insights that will help in his search for justice for his own family. As a man of action Adam wastes no time and proposes to Clara on the spot.
Lady Clara doesn’t take the Duke’s proposal seriously considering the animosity between their families, nor is she particularly interested in being married to anyone at all. With the generous settlements given her after her father’s death, Clara is a woman of independent means. To lose control of the lands and money willed to her just because the lay says that everything belonging to a woman automatically belongs to her husband upon her marriage seems unjust, especially when that money can be spent on more fulfilling enterprises. Under the nose of society, Clara has funded and published a journal focused on issues relevant to the women of London that gives a voice to ladies across all social classes. Also in the spirit of liberation, Clara has set-up her own household away from her controlling grandmother and dutiful younger brother. Stratton’s attention can only complicate her life, yet Clara still finds herself flattered by his attempts to get her alone or to pursue her despite her refusals.
Unwilling to surrender his plan to have Clara as his bride, Adam uses her independence from her brother’s household as the perfect cover to court her away from the gossips or her grandmother’s schemes. He conveniently gets himself invited to the same parties or gatherings where Clara is serving as a chaperone to her young sister, manipulating the situation so that she cannot ignore his presence. Against her better judgment Clara finds herself enjoying Adam’s company as he treats her like an equal and seems genuinely interested in her perspective on any number of topics.
Their relationship becomes a comfortable companionship until a simple misunderstanding by Clara’s housekeeper allows Adam into her house late one evening. Caught by surprise, Clara is unable to hide her attraction to him behind the indifferent mask she’s been wearing since their first meeting. Ready to explore the passion and physical response he’s awakened in her, Clara allows Adam to change their dynamic from just a friendship into something deeper. Still, in her heart, Clara is not ready to surrender to marriage as she can sense a darkness in Adam that overshadows everything when they’re together. As discoveries are made about the scandals that pushed Adam and his mother out of England for a time and increased the prestige of the Marwood earldom, Clara must decide if the love she carries for Adam can be enough for him to forgive the pain and tragedies of his past.
The Most Dangerous Duke in London is not a light or flippant story of instant love driving the main couple into a relationship. Instead it appeals to the maturity and intelligence of the reader, allowing them to see Adam and Clara as complex characters with goals and motivations that sometimes conflict with where their heart leads them. Adam’s return to England is the latest step towards clearing his father’s name from the rumors of collusion that forced the man to commit suicide. The Countess of Marwood inadvertently gives Adam the one thing he’d thought impossible as he looks for the proof that the Cheswick family was somehow behind the smear campaign: access to Clara, who knew her father better than anyone else. That Adam’s reasons for pursuing Clara aren’t all above board adds a layer of suspense as we’re always waiting for Clara to uncover the truth about Adam’s mission and also some of the skeletons buried in her family’s closets.
Allowing the romance to build to the point where Adam and Clara are certain of their feelings for each other requires patience. Neither one is comfortable being the first to express their emotions or to somehow weaken their position within the relationship by being the one to give in. Clara fights the hardest to resist any softening of her resolve to remain unmarried, pushing Adam away when all she really wants is to be close to him. It’s a back and forth that gets a little frustrating and slightly boring as scene after scene is the two of them finding any way possible to dance around their real emotions. If either character had been just the smallest bit more demonstrative it could have increased the anticipation for that moment where we feel that the characters are truly in love.
I was surprised at how well Ms. Hunter wove the many threads of the story back together for the final reveal of how the Stratton name got caught up in an investigation of treason. It’s a quiet dénouement that fits perfectly with Adam’s aristocratic bearing and Clara’s straightforward manner. There are no grand gestures and those in the wrong receive a punishment appropriate to the crime. It’s a very satisfying way to close The Most Dangerous Duke in London, while the interactions with Adam’s friends throughout the story will lead nicely into the remaining books of the series. I know that I am interested to see what comes next.