The Secret Duke
There are too many “ifs” attached to The Secret Duke. If Jo Beverley was a consistent read for me. If I’d read the first two books in the trilogy, not to mention the entire Malloren backlist. If I gave a flying fox about the central couple. But the answer to all of the above is a resounding negative.
When the story opens in Dover, 1760, Bella Barstowe has just run away from a kidnapping, but the tavern where she finds herself is no safer – that is, until the notorious pirate Captain Rose rescues her. Choosing expediency over gratitude, she steals his horse and runs away. Four years later her circumstances have changed, enabling her to lead an independent life in London where she volunteers for Lady Fowler, a semi-deranged semi-anarchist who writes newsletters decrying the marriage estate and males in general. One day Bella comes upon the truth behind her abduction, and decides that the only man capable of aiding her revenge is Captain Rose.
I’ll just take a moment to point some of my problems in that paragraph alone. A sudden inheritance? Bella just happening to bump into one of her kidnappers in London? And choosing the guy who pulled her out of a tavern four years ago? Talk about machines from above.
Moving on. What Bella doesn’t know is that Captain Rose was a disguise for the Duke of Ithorne, aka Rake #3 of the Rakish Trilogy, who switches places with his half-brother (the real Captain Rose) whenever he wants a breather from his ducal responsibilities. Thorn No-First-or-Last-Name takes his responsibilities very seriously indeed, and so much of life is spent playing politics, dealing with estate matters, and battling the Marquess of Rothgar, that it’s a wonder to this reader where he had the time to become a rake. But then his half-brother informs him that a wench is looking for Captain Rose. Intrigued, Thorn meets with Bella.
But not the real Bella, see. Thorn’s actually met Bella three times under three separate disguises (don’t ask), and it’s darn fitting that neither Bella nor I can decide precisely who she is. Is she the shrew from her evil brother’s household? Is she the flirt from Disguise #2? Is she the sullen spinster from Disguise #3? Or a mixture of all? I can’t tell, which makes me wonder why Thorn fell in love with her. Neither Bella nor Thorn is annoying or irritating or any other number of negative adjectives. But they are inscrutable, flat, and damned boring. It’s not that I didn’t believe in their romance. I just didn’t give a crap.
Much of the deficient characterization is due to an encumbrance of subplots (which include Lady Fowler, Bella’s abduction, and Bella’s brother), side characters (see Lady Fowler’s ginormous household), and secrets and past characters (both too many to count). The flood never stops. There isn’t a lot of each bit. But there are a whole lot of bits.