Why Do Dukes Fall in Love?
Why Do Dukes Fall in Love? asks the overly cutsey title of this, the fourth book in Megan Frampton’s Dukes Behaving Badly series. Before I answer that, I’m going to ask a question of my own. Is there anyone out there who isn’t fed up with the current vogue for horribly contrived romance novel titles based on song/movie appellations?
Fortunately, the first answer to the first question (there are a number given throughout the story) – Because it’s better than falling into a muddy ditch – sets the tone for this particular book, which is deftly written and strongly characterised with a nice line in deadpan humour and a well-matched central couple who are a little out of the ordinary.
Mrs Edwina Cheltam’s late husband has left her practically destitute; and with a young daughter to provide for, she needs to find a way of supporting them, and quickly. She turns to a close friend for advice; a friend who runs an employment agency which, in her more prosperous past, Edwina had used in order to find suitable domestics. Now the boot is on the other foot, and it’s Edwina who needs to find a job. Fortunately, she is clever; up until the year before his death, she had managed all her husband’s business interests and her excellent stewardship had grown his investments considerably. Unfortunately, she is also female – and there is no place for intelligent, business-minded women in the strict society of the mid-nineteenth century. Mr Cheltam married his much younger wife simply because she was beautiful and he liked schmoozing with her on his arm. In the last year of his life, he had transferred the management of his affairs to his younger brother, with the disastrous results that now mean Edwina has nothing.
Michael, the Duke of Hadlow, is precise, controlled, blunt and honest to a fault. He doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, and has no patience with meandering small-talk or the little white lies that keep the wheels of society turning. He’s undoubtedly the sort of man who would simply reply “yes” when asked “does my bum look big in this?”. He’s also fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly dedicated to running his many and varied business interests which range from agriculture to railways and he has no time or patience for flattery, sycophancy or anything that embellishes the plain and simple facts of whatever it is that interests him. At first, I wondered if his excessive orderliness and his seeming inability to understand or offer what most of us would regard as normal responses to personal and social interaction were an indication that he might have sociopathic tendencies, or perhaps be a high-functioning autistic. Obviously, neither of these were conditions that would have been understood at the time the book is set, so the author doesn’t attempt to classify Hadlow’s reactions in those terms. He does eventually develop an awareness of others and of the need for empathy through his association with Edwina, so I suppose he could just as easily be a man whose inheritance of a lofty social position at an early age meant he never had to bother with simple manners or to worry about how his no-nonsense attitude would be received by others.
As the story opens, the Duke of Hadlow’s orderly existence stands in real danger of becoming disorderly, owing to the fact that he is currently without a secretary. Fourteen candidates have been and gone and he despairs of finding anyone suitable when one more possibility presents itself – in the form (the rather delightful form) of Mrs Edwina Cheltam. Edwina very quickly shows herself to be intelligent, resourceful and, more importantly, able to keep up with him mentally, so Hadlow hires her on the spot. The fact that she’s a woman is by the by – she’s the best ‘man’ for the job and that’s all there is to it.
Once Edwina gets over her astonishment at having been taken on, she settles in quickly. The duke allows her to engage a governess for six-year-old Gertrude and Edwina can finally start to breathe easy. She is earning a good living, she and her daughter have a roof over their heads, and she enjoys working with the duke, who is clearly brilliant and visionary, if somewhat socially inept. He’s also gorgeous, which is the sort of distraction Edwina could do without, especially when he shows signs of being as smitten as she is. She’s not of his class, and besides, Hadlow is not a man likely to choose emotions over practicalities. Eventually he’ll have to find himself a suitable, aristocratic bride, even though one of those will likely bore him silly within minutes. But until then… perhaps a little self-indulgence might not be such a bad idea.
The story is a simple one, but it’s very well told and both central characters are easy to like, even Hadlow, whose seeming rudeness might have made him unpleasant. The author skilfully tempers his abrasiveness with glimpses of other aspects of his character and his past which mitigate his less endearing traits, painting a strong portrait of a man who really IS an island. His only friend appears to be his dog, and he attends the occasional social event purely because he knows he needs to mix occasionally with those of his peers from whom he will at some point, need to secure cooperation for a parliamentary bill or other such political manoeuvre. The death of his older brother when he was just four years-old affected him profoundly as did the fact that his parents seemed only ever to value his achievements and not Hadlow himself; so he made the decision long ago that emotions were inconvenient things that served no purpose and needed to be shut away. Besides, he has no idea what to do with them.
The romance proceeds at a good pace and the couple’s decision to become lovers is not taken without either of them being aware of all the potential pitfalls. I enjoyed the way they became friends first, both of them coming to admit to being lonely and then to delight in the discovery of another person with whom they can talk and exchange ideas and who, most importantly, has some sort of insight into their thought processes. Edwina’s intelligence might not be quite the equal of Hadlow’s in some areas, but in others she’s way ahead of him, which leads me to the thing I appreciated most about the book. Whatever the reasons for his behaviour, by the end, he’s still essentially the same man, but one who has started to develop some degree of empathy. His brain still works a hundred times faster than anyone else’s, he still gets impatient waiting for people to catch up and he still doesn’t really understand the concept of idle pleasantries or the social niceties. But under Edwina’s influence, he starts to understand that perhaps his words and manner have been hurtful in the past, and he begins to make the attempt to change. And that’s the important thing. He doesn’t have a personality transplant and suddenly turn into Lord-transformed-by-love; but he is trying to change.
Why Do Dukes Fall in Love? is very much a character-driven story, and I raced through it in a couple of sittings. I wasn’t wild about the blackmail sub-plot that is shoehorned in near the end or about the other last-minute attempt to create some uncertainty, both of which caused me to lower my final grade a little. Ultimately, though, this is a solidly enjoyable read, and one I’m happy to recommend.