The Naked Duke
To a casual browser, The Naked Duke looks like a light Regency-era historical romance, and it does have its share of witty banter and eccentric characters. But it also hearkens back to the old fashioned bodice-ripper, especially when it comes to the villain, who is a skanky piece of evilness with rape and murder on his mind.
Sarah Hamilton is an American. At her father’s death, her relatives send her to her uncle, the English Earl of Westbrooke. As the book begins, she’s bone tired from traveling and desperate for some rest. At an inn, she is directed to her room by a tipsy gentleman and wakes up in bed with a handsome, naked stranger – and they have an audience.
Sarah’s bedmate is James, Duke of Alford, who is happy to see her. He needs a wife and heir to protect the Alford heritage from his vicious and evil cousin Richard, whom he suspects of making attempts on his life. James is charmed by the fiery Sarah and explains that since she is compromised, she will have to marry him.
Sarah is thoroughly American, and has no wish to tie herself to a debauched peer. Luckily, all the witnesses at the inn are relatives of James and they agree to be silent about finding them together. Since Sarah’s uncle is dead and her young cousin is the new Earl, James proposes that Sarah go to Alford and live there. James’s aunts will be chaperones and Sarah will be a companion for his sister. In the meantime, he will attempt to persuade her to marry him.
Sarah is very much a stranger in a strange land. Her father was an extreme republican who totally repudiated his aristocratic family and has passed his prejudices on to his daughter. Sarah makes some protests toward getting a job as a teacher or governess, but she is totally bowled over by the Alford family and their friends. They outfit her in flattering gowns, and take her to ton parties where she hears lots of gossip about James. His nickname is The Monk and he is supposed to be debauched beyond measure. But the gossip does not match the kind and funny James with whom Sarah is beginning to fall in love.
James is a real sweetheart. He’s the usual Regency war hero, but he is no rake – in fact, there’s something about him that goes well beyond typical fake rakedom. James is almost too perfect to be believed, and the one problem I had with him was understanding why he fell in love with the prickly Sarah at literally first glance. But lovers of beta heroes are going to adore him.
Based on the cover and the back description, readers who are expecting nothing but a light and frothy read are going to be surprised. The Naked Duke has a very dark sub-plot dealing with James’s cousin Richard and his attempts to kill James so he can have the dukedom for himself. Richard is a twisted sadist. During the book, he makes several attempts on James’s life, directly and through a hired assassin. He rapes and strangles a prostitute in graphic detail, hires someone to rape Sarah and finally kidnaps Sarah and attempts to rape her as a prelude to having her gang-raped. There is also some graphic violence, and some stomach-churning descriptions of filthy and lice ridden prostitutes – there’s little attempt to gloss over the reality of a prostitute’s life.
While not perfect by any means, The Naked Duke is different and interesting enough to make it a better than average book. Even though it really can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be gritty or humorous, at least it’s an original and at this time of book clones, that is a big plus for it. Also, James has no brother and he and his friends don’t belong to a Secret Club with a funny name, so haters of linked books can pick this one up and be assured of a stand alone read. But its originality cannot make up for its schizophrenic tendencies. Still, it’ll be interesting to see what debuting author Mackenzie comes up with next time.