What a Duke Dares
This, the third book in Ms Campbell’s Sons of Sin series, is one I’ve been looking forward to. I enjoyed meeting the very proper and austere Duke of Sedgemoor in the other books, and had high hopes for his story.
The last thing Camden Rothermere needs, in the opinion of his childhood friend, Penelope Thorne – is to ally himself with a family whose name is a byword for scandal. And she tells Cam so in no uncertain terms when she turns down his proposal of marriage, for the Thornes are by no means pillars of respectability. Her father is a rake and gambler, her eldest brother is cut from the same cloth, and Penelope herself is fond of forming her own opinions about things, frequently outspoken and not at all the type of demure debutante who will make Cam a dignified wife.
Her real reason for refusing him, however, is a completely different one, which she can’t tell him. Because Cam watched his parents’ marriage disintegrate –
As a result of love, my father descended into cruelty and obsession and my mother became a byword for promiscuity.”
– he doesn’t believe in love and wants nothing to do with it.
And Penelope – who has loved him all her life – won’t marry without it.
Like the heroes of the other full-length books in the series, Cam doesn’t know the identity of his father. In order to try to make society forget the circumstances of his birth and the public misery of his parents’ marriage Cam, now the powerful, cold and self-possessed Duke of Sedgemoor, has spent his entire life being fiercely correct, making sure his actions are above reproach, and doing everything he can to restore his family name to respectability.
Shortly after turning down Cam’s proposal nine years earlier, Penelope seized the opportunity to join an eccentric aunt on a trip to the Continent, and then settled with her in Italy. But the aunt has recently died, and in order to fulfil a promise made to Pen’s dying brother, Cam must find her and take her home. He traces Pen to a shabby inn somewhere in the Italian Alps, where he finds her being accosted by a group of nasty Italian bandits. Fortunately, Cam turns up in time to rescue his damsel, guns blazing, in a very “movie hero” moment, which I have to say, Ms Campbell does rather well.
The problem is that Penelope doesn’t want to go back home. England is too confining for a young woman with more than half a brain and she has no intention of going back there to be suffocated by society’s do’s and don’ts. But she can’t refuse her brother’s last wish and the pair set off for England.
Because Pen can’t travel with Cam unchaperoned, they have no alternative but to travel as a married couple and almost make it back without anyone being aware of their deception. But on the final stage of their journey, during a stormy Channel crossing, their ship is seriously damaged and Cam and Pen barely escape with their lives. Once rescued, back on land and ensconced at an inn, they are assumed to be married – and this time, there is no way they will get away with the pretense. Pen is adamant that she doesn’t want to marry Cam, knowing that being married to a man who will never love her will all but destroy her. But she can’t bear to see him surrounded by scandal and gossip when he’s worked so hard all his life to avoid it, so she agrees to his request and marries him, deciding that she will try to become the sort of demure, biddable duchess he wants.
Although of course, in doing so, she becomes a complete stranger to Cam, who wonders where the vivacious, intelligent woman he’d known has gone, why she is wearing horribly drab dresses and where such perfect, cool manners have come from.
Things start to look up when Cam tells Pen to forget about being the perfect duchess and that he likes her for what and who she is. Which means it’s time to throw the proverbial spanner into the works.
Pen’s brother Harry has fallen in love with a young heiress, who happens to be the sister of Cam’s bitter enemy, the Marquess of Leath. The cash-strapped marquess has refused Harry’s suit and instead plans to marry Sophie off to a much older man with plenty of money. Against her better judgement, Pen helps the two to meet in secret – and when things escalate and Pen’s involvement is discovered…let’s just say Cam is not best pleased at the prospect of being once again mired in scandal.
Both Cam and Pen are strongly characterised and there are plenty of sparks flying between them from the get-go. I’m normally wary of “unconventional” heroines, as they can often be too outrageous for the period and frequently oppose the hero just for the sake of it – but Pen isn’t in that mould. I also applaud her decision to get on with her life after Cam’s proposal rather than stay at home and pine over something – someone – she cannot have.
I enjoyed the story, but I confess to coming away from the book feeling just a teeny bit disappointed. Cam is a delicious hero, who struggles to learn that there is more to life than reputation and there is a strong emotional connection between him and Pen. I liked that he knows Pen well enough to realise that she’s deliberately keeping something of herself at a distance (although he can’t work out why) – but my main issue is with the book’s structure. While integral to the plot, the secondary romance detracts too much from the principal storyline in the first section of the book, which I found very frustrating and which ultimately unbalanced it somewhat for me. I felt as if things were just getting going – when I was pulled out of that story and plunged into another one which, to be honest, was rather bland by comparison. This happened not once, but several times, and in fact I almost put the book aside because of it. The fact that I didn’t is down to the fact that I’ve enjoyed other books by Ms. Cambpell and trusted her not to short-change me; and because she had interested me just enough in Pen and Cam’s story, but it was a close-run thing.
On a more positive note, and as she did in the previous book (A Rake’s Midnight Kiss), Ms Campbell provides a beautifully poignant epilogue, which I confess was probably the real high point of the book for me!
In spite of my reservations, What a Duke Dares is certainly one of the better historical romances I’ve read recently, but because of them, I felt I couldn’t in all conscience award a higher grade.