When the Duke Was Wicked
This is the first in a new series by this author, in which the protagonists are the offspring of the characters in her Scoundrels of St. James series. I admit that I haven’t (yet) read any of those books, but I certainly plan to on the strength of this one.
I was engrossed by When the Duke Was Wicked right from the first page. For one thing, I rather like the trope of long-standing friends who fall for each other, and for another, the central relationship in the book is extremely well-drawn and written. Even in those first pages, there is a very strong sense of connection between the hero and heroine, and their rapport is compelling.
Grace Mabry has everything. She is beautiful, vivacious, intelligent and wealthy, and is, naturally, one of the most sought after debutantes of the season. She has also, since her childhood, been in love with the Duke of Lovingdon, but has long since accepted that her feelings will never be reciprocated. Not being the shy, retiring type, Grace has not spent years pining for a man who cannot be hers and wants to find a husband whom she can love and who will love her truly in return.
But she is concerned that she is being courted for the wrong reasons – that her money is what is attracting the suitors to her like bees to a honey-pot, and that none of the young men dancing attendance on her are actually interested in her. She is adamant that she will not settle for anything less than mutual love – but how is she to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Grace needs help, and there’s only one person she can turn to. Henry, Duke of Lovingdon used to be one of her closest and dearest friends, until the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter two years before turned him into an almost-recluse. The open-hearted, sober young man with whom Grace had grown up has vanished and in his place is a louche debauchee who only cares to drink enough spirits and shag enough women to enable him to forget his grief, no matter how temporarily.
Grace has witnessed Lovingdon’s descent into dissipation with a sense of powerlessness, frustrated at watching a good, kind man throw his life away. Those around him don’t know what to do either – even his mother, to whom he is very close, knows that no amount of cajoling will induce him to return to society, and Grace itches to drag him back to the land of the living. But she is a realist, and even as she hopes that perhaps she has found a way to bring Lovingdon back to the fold, she admits to herself that it is unlikely to work.
Lovingdon wants nothing to do with Grace’s search for love, even when she reminds him how lucky he was to find it with his late wife and asks if she does not deserve the same. He cares for Grace as a friend, but he has finished with love in all its forms, finding the idea of confronting that emotion merely at second or third hand far too painful to cope with, and turns down her request.
Grace is no simpering miss, however, and decides that if she has to make her choice of eligible bachelors without help, then she will do so. But it is difficult, even to one of her intelligence, to decide which of them is merely indulging in idle flattery and which are complimenting her truthfully. But when word reaches Lovingdon that she appears to favour one or two of the men in particular, he finds himself unable to keep silent on the matter.
He is still determined not to actively help Grace, but a word in her ear now and then, he reasons, will keep her out of harm’s way, so he starts to tell her things to help her to figure out the difference between the men who want her and the men who want her dowry. Things such as the fact that the man who is interested in her will focus on her when she speaks, or that he will find reasons to lean in to listen to her, or to touch her innocently as when guiding her with a hand at her back or elbow.
The waters become muddied, however, when Lovingdon finds himself incensed by the fact that Grace didn’t particularly enjoy her first kiss with one of her pack of suitors, and decides she deserves to know, at the very least, what it should have felt like. He’s also too far in denial to admit that he’s just as incensed by the fact that she received that kiss from someone other than him.
Because Lovingdon has suddenly realised that Grace is no longer a girl, but a desirable young woman – and he desires her. But he can’t love her – or at least, he does love her, but not in the way she wants or the way he feels she deserves.
When the Duke Was Wicked is yet another of those books in which the title bears little relation to the content. There seems to be a necessity to include the words “Duke, Earl, Marquess, Lord” and some reference to iniquity in the titles of so many historical romances these days, which, in my opinion, does the books in question a disservice – unless of course, the titled hero really is wicked!
Fortunately, however, the lack of a decent title didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book, which was well-paced and strongly-characterised with a very engaging central couple. Initially, Grace’s insistence that she had to find a man who would love her for herself came across as a bit whiny and self-indulgent, but it quickly became apparent that her wish to find such a man went far deeper than at first appeared. Grace is outgoing and confident, but is masking some deep insecurities that are briefly alluded to throughout the story. It isn’t until fairly late in the book that we discover the real reasons for her insistence that the man she marries truly loves her for herself – and that Grace learns that the man she has loved all her life is the one man for whom her imperfections make her all the more perfect.
Grace is a wonderful character. So many historical romances depict the beautiful, popular debutante as either empty-headed or ill-tempered, so it was refreshing to meet a heroine who was both pretty AND good-natured. She was independent and opinionated without being annoyingly “feisty”, had a great sense of fun, and had clearly not completely left what I assume was a bit of a tomboyish upbringing behind her, comfortably swigging spirits from the bottle and sneaking the odd cigar from her father’s study!
Lovingdon could easily have been one of those stereotypes whose first love turned out not to have been love at all, and who finally discovers Twoo Wuv with someone else. But Ms Heath has thankfully avoided that particular pitfall and shows him realising that it’s okay to let go of his first love and start living again. His feelings for Grace are new and different – and that’s okay, too.
I found this to be quite an emotional story, especially in the later stages, when Lovingdon is coming to see how deep his feelings for Grace go, and when he has to overcome his fear of losing her. I do like romances that punch me in the gut (metaphorically speaking!) and this book did just that, and more than once.
But there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me which prevented me from making it a DIK. While I really liked Lovingdon, I found that his obliviousness as to the state of his feelings for Grace and his later refusal to acknowledge them became quickly annoying. He’d tell her how the man who truly loved her should act towards her, how he should hold her and kiss her, and then do exactly as he described – and even when Grace pointed out that if she were to take his guidance as gospel, the man who truly loved her was Lovingdon himself – he remained stoutly in denial.
Then there is an event, late in the book, which felt to me as though it was there simply to inject a bit of peril into the story. Personally, I thought it was strong enough not to need it, and found myself thinking that surely an author of Ms Heath’s calibre could have found another way to push Lovingdon that bit further down the path towards awakening.
But the scenes which followed, in which he finally faces up to the choices he has made and the one he has yet to make, were so well-written and so emotionally intense that I found myself almost (but not quite!) able to forgive Ms Heath for the clichéd method she’d chosen to bring our hero and heroine to that point.
Despite those two niggles, I found When the Duke Was Wicked to be a very engaging and emotionally satisfying story. I enjoyed it reading it very much, am looking forward to more in the series, and have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of Ms Heath’s other books and of historical romance in general.