The Return of the Duke
Grade : C-

Lorraine Heath’s The Return of the Duke, third in her Once Upon a Dukedom series, begins with Marcus Stanwick confronting his father’s mistress, a year after his father was hanged for conspiring to assassinate Queen Victoria. That’s a killer start, no pun intended, so even though I haven’t read any others in this series, I thought I’d give this one a try.

Marcus is taken aback to discover that the mistress, Esme Lancaster, is magnificent in every way—voluptuous, confident, independent and not in the least intimidated by him. He’s fiercely attracted to her but her relationship with his father means she’s completely off limits. On top of that, she can’t help him clear his father’s name since his father never divulged the names of any other conspirators to her.

But then, at a masked ball, he discovers her in the host’s study, taking photographs of documents with a camera concealed in a watch. When they’re caught, they pretend to be lovers slipping into the study for a tryst, and afterwards, Esme tells Marcus the truth. She was never his father’s mistress. Instead, she’s employed by the Home Office to protect the Queen from future assassination attempts. So Marcus and Esme team up to find the rest of the conspirators while dealing with ruffians, ferreting out clues, and fighting their feelings for each other.

This is a novel of action and lust-think, with characterization coming in a poor third. Esme and Marcus are so much alike that you could swap their places and nothing would change. They’re both gorgeous, daring, and saddled with a sad childhood. Basically, she’s the Electra to his Daredevil, and more than once, Marcus thinks how any other woman would scream or swoon at being attacked by ruffians or coming across a grisly murder, whereas Esme is cool as ice. Amusingly, though, after the murder, Marcus decides, “Just because she didn’t swoon, it didn’t mean that her feminine sensibilities hadn’t been battered.” Make up your mind, Marcus: is she Like Other Women in that she has feminine sensibilities, whatever those are, or is she better than the rest of her gender because of her robotic self-control except when you kiss her senseless?

Speaking of characterization, Esme is a genderswapped James Bond down to the spy-gadgets - except she’s never had an orgasm with her previous lovers. Of course, with Marcus it happens the first time. Unfortunately, their attraction, constantly at a fever pitch, doesn’t mesh well with the action. The day after both of them are stabbed in a fight, they have a wrestling match that turns into a passionate clinch. Esme’s beloved dog is hurt by an intruder, so Marcus carries the dog upstairs and imagines Esme undressing as a reward for his help. Between this and the continuing assassination plot, the gang headed by someone called Lucifer, who uses playing cards as a sign that they dun the deed, and Marcus’s quest to clear his father’s name, there’s not much room for a romantic relationship to develop.

On top of that, so many characters from other Heath romances either appear or are namedropped that I lost count of them, but rest assured that Benedict and Althea Trewlove are very happy together, and the marital bliss of the Duke of Kingsland and Griffith Stanwick (not with each other) has never been greater. One of the Chessmen makes an appearance too, claiming he’ll never marry so that readers will buy his book. The twist of the villain’s identity is not much of a twist since this person couldn’t be the hero or heroine of a Heath novel, which didn’t leave many candidates to choose from. But I did like one aspect of Esme’s backstory, which is something I’ve never before read in a historical romance and which saved this book from a D grade.

Ultimately, though, The Return of the Duke gave me the impression of Heath trying to wrap the series up so she could move on to a new one. If you’re looking for a historical which balances action, intrigue, romance and attraction, and does this very well, I recommend K. J. Charles’s Slippery Creatures series. But I can’t recommend this book.

Reviewed by Marian Perera
Grade : C-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : January 25, 2024

Publication Date: 07/2022

Recent Comments …

  1. Yep, that’s the long and short of it – I like her more as a contemporary writer because of this.…

Marian Perera

I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.
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