I honestly don’t know what to make of this. It’s Mary Balogh, so it’s beautifully written, that goes without saying. In fact, I would describe it as compelling. Yet I had problems with it right from the off, and not just minor grumbles, but great big NO-NO-NO problems. So it was a weird read for me. I’m still conflicted.
Here’s the premise: Jocelyn Dudley, the Duke of Tresham is engaged in a duel. The opponents are lined up, pistols poised, when out of nowhere a servant races towards them, shrieking at them to stop. Tresham, astonished, does so. His less honourable opponent carries right on and shoots him in the leg. Delayed by the consequences, Jane Inglesby, the servant, loses her menial job unless she can prove that she really was helping the Duke of Tresham. So she boldly marches up to his house and asks him to write in confirmation. Instead, he takes her on to nurse him while he’s recovering from being shot. Which suits her because she’s in hiding and she might as well hide in the comfort of the duke’s town house. For three weeks, they bicker and banter and squabble (and begin to fall in love) and at the end of it, he offers to set her up as his mistress. And she agrees.
Now, there are a million problems with this. First and foremost, what on earth is she doing intervening in a duel anyway? She might stop to gawk, but trying to stop it? WHY? She doesn’t know any of them, has no stake in the outcome and her life depends on her keeping a low profile. It makes not a scrap of sense. Usually I can go with the flow of the opening premise, but this one is just too out there.
Secondly, even when Jocelyn begins to realise that she’s not the orphanage girl she pretends to be, he never questions her about all the secrecy or tries to find out who she really is, or why she hates to be seen by any of his friends.
Thirdly, why why why when she’s hiding from any number of grim possible outcomes, up to and including death, does she agree to sing for fifty guests? And no, the payment of fifty pounds doesn’t convince me.
Fourthly, given that she’s led a perfectly respectable and sheltered life before this, why on earth does she agree to become the duke’s mistress, and no, because she’s got the hots for him isn’t an answer.
And fifthly (and finally, let’s hope), why is she doing nothing at all to rescue herself from her predicament? She isn’t friendless, as we discover later in the book, far too late, really. There were people she could have called upon to help her, even before she left home, when she was being pressurised to marry against her will. And even when things got really sticky and she panicked and ran away, she had a ton of time to think up better options, and (again) people who would have helped her, if only they’d known of her predicament. And once she was ensconced in the duke’s house, she must surely have realised that he would have helped her, if only she’d asked, and he was powerful enough to protect her. As he proved, later in the book (which is the funniest part of it, actually, since he has only to crook his little finger and everyone is your-grace-ing and running around to do his bidding and the whole situation is resolved in three minutes flat and Jane is so irritated that, after all that she’s been through, it’s just so easy for him, being a man and a duke and rich and all that; and I totally got why she was so annoyed).
And that scene kind of summarises one of the big problems I had with the book. Jane is intelligent and feisty and resourceful (and pretty stupid at times, too, but let’s gloss over that for the moment), but she was also pretty helpless. She could do nothing to defend herself, she needed other, more powerful, friends. Whereas Jocelyn has all the power, in spades, but he rarely uses it for any sensible purpose. Instead, he’s the typical Regency alpha-male hero – arrogant, rude, selfish, temperamental, reckless and all kinds of other unpleasantnesses. And he’s also manly and courageous and honourable and loyal and superbly good at everything he does. Because of course he is. Oh yes, and he has a sensitive side, too, so he’s a brilliant (self-taught) pianist and a brilliant (self-taught) painter. Because of course he is. I cannot tell you how much I disliked him.
With a hero like that, there is really only one way for him to redeem himself, to my mind – he has to crawl. He has to be so deep in love with the heroine that he falls at her feet and abandons all dignity to humble himself before her and beg her to marry him. Nothing else will do. But Jocelyn didn’t. Instead he decides (decides!) that she’s going to marry him and even when she steadily and determinedly refuses him, he is still absolutely sure that she’ll agree in the end. Not a single momentary doubt enters his arrogant aristocratic head. Ugh.
So what’s the good stuff? Well, it’s Mary Balogh, so it’s brilliantly written. The dialogue between our two main characters is scintillating, and the heroine usually has the last word, which is refreshing (and probably why he fell in love with her). Every scene between them shone. The hero does have shreds of redeemability in his character, he has a group of entertaining and totally loyal friends (and hooray for likable characters!) and his sister is delightfully silly. The villains are pretty silly, too, but that’s par for the course with Regencies. Mainly, though, I have to confess that despite the deficiencies of the plot, I couldn’t put the book down. So after some agonising, I’m going to set this one down as a four star, and point out (as always) that although I sound pretty negative about this, it’s only my excessively quirky opinion and I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot.