The Once and Future Duchess
The Once and Future Duchess is not going to revolutionize the romance genre, but it’s not terrible either. I liked the characters for the most part, and though I evidently came in mid-series, I didn’t feel that it was much of a detriment. What worked less well? The hero’s refusal to tell the heroine why he couldn’t marry her.
Isabelle Tremont, Duchess of March, is the only Duchess in an elite group otherwise occupied by dukes called the entourage. All of them are powerful aristocrats who control important properties and votes, and most of them were at a scandalous party where absinthe was consumed, someone was shot, and two people (from the previous book, of course) ended up married. Partly as a result of the ensuing scandal, Prinny has insisted that all of them settle down, and Isabelle means to take him at his word. She gets up her courage and asks her fellow-entourage member, the Duke of Candover, to marry her.
James Fitzroy, Duke of Candover, is famously top-lofty, and is both her father’s godson and her trusted advisor. But Isabelle has always seen him as more than that. So when she asks Candover to marry her – and he refuses – she is devastated, though she tries not to let her feelings show.
Why, might you ask, does Candover refuse her, when it’s pretty clear he’s attracted to her too? Well, Isabelle’s father extracted a deathbed promise from him that he was to see Isabelle married someone close to her own age so that she wasn’t waiting on some doddering old man in his dotage. Candover is hardly a doddering old man (he’s in his early thirties), but apparently that is too old. He doesn’t tell Isabelle why he can’t (or really, won’t) marry her, so she thinks he’s just not interested.
This is all a somewhat shoddy basis for a plot, and the crux of my problems with the book. Fortunately, other things are going on, and these other things are more interesting. One of them is a secondary romance between Candover’s sisters’ former companion (now companion to Isabelle’s cousin) and one of the other dukes. I thought at first that it was a teaser for the next book, which made me interested enough to read it. However, the romance appears to be more or less complete here. This plot is somewhat related to a secret Candover holds, which is also tied up with events from the night they all had too much absinthe. That whole plot is entertaining, and made me like Candover more than I would have otherwise.
The romance between Isabelle and Candover, though, remained somewhat disappointing, and the revelation about why he won’t marry her is left until far too late. It casts a pall over everything, including the single sex scene. And when I say Candover leaves the revelation until way too late, I really mean it. Isabelle is on the verge of marrying elsewhere, and the book is practically over before he does anything about it. I would have been less frustrated with him if he had some sort of reason for not telling her the truth, but I really couldn’t think of one beyond the obvious (if she knew too soon the book would be over).
Though I found that situation annoying, I actually found both Candover and Isabelle likable. Isabelle because she knew what she wanted and went after it, Candover because his heart is in the right place. He may be misguided, but he’s never a jerk.
The only other issue I had was that the prose was a little clunky at times, and a little purple. I had to chuckle when the hero “trace(d) the folds of her essence” and noted that she was “like hot velvet in the rain.” When and where would anyone even touch hot velvet in the rain? How does the velvet even stay hot? Wouldn’t the rain cool it off? Are these the thoughts you want your reader thinking when the hero and heroine are getting hot and heavy? (Although, come to think of it, that rainy, hot velvet is probably pretty heavy too.) Also, I was reading an advance copy, so I hope that someone, somewhere realizes that “populous” does not mean either “populace” or “populist” before the book is published. I don’t know that I have seen the same word used wrong twice – in different ways – before.
That said, I didn’t find this book a complete waste of time. It’s a little messy, and the pieces didn’t quite come together as I would have liked. But there are good bones under there, and some promising characters. I’d at least give Nash another shot.