Thursday, 23 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 14: "A Duke to Remember" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 50 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Miss Elise DeVries is a sometime stage actress, sometime scandal fixer, working as one of the chief agents in the company of Chagarre and Associates, an exclusive firm working clandestinely for the upper classes. They can fix or bury pretty much any scandal there is, provided a high enough payment is offered. Elise is a master of disguise, used to wearing a multitude of faces, nearly always playing a part. Only with her fellow associates, Miss Ivory Moore, also known as the Duchess (and the actual Duchess of Aldridge after the events of Duke of My Heart) and her brother Alexander Lavoie, a successful gambling house owner, former spy and rumoured assassin, can she let her guard down and relax. Growing up in a Canadian colony, Elise learned many of her now useful skills as a tracker and riflewoman for the army, having followed her older brothers to war when their home was destroyed. She's a formidable lady, and always gets the job done, no matter the difficulty level.

Elise's current job involves the Dowager Duchess of Ashland committed to Bedlam by her unscrupulous nephew Francis Ellery, the distraught Lady Abigail, who has hired Elise to get her mother out, not to mention the missing Duke of Ashland, Lady Abigail's older brother Noah. According to Francis, Noah Ellery is long dead, but the reason the Dowager Duchess is being treated in the madhouse and drugged up to the eyeballs is because she keeps saying that her beloved son is still alive. Closer questioning shows that Lady Abigail believes this to be the case as well. She hasn't seen her brother since he was sent away at the age of ten, and there was clearly something wrong with the boy, who Francis claims was wrong in the head, and even Lady Abigail admits never spoke. When Lady Abigail caused a minor scandal by choosing to move to Darby to marry a smith, she received a letter from her brother with a beautiful broach. She knows that the smith who made it was most likely a man named John Barr, who works in Nottingham. Elise has to go off to question him, trying to locate traces of the missing duke from there.

As it turns out, her search is over before it's nearly begun. On her way into Nottingham, Elise spies a child in the river, and throws herself into the water to rescue the boy. She is hauled up on the banks of the river by a very handsome man calling himself Noah Lawson, and the child belongs to none other than Noah's best friend, the smith John Barr. Both John and his wife Sarah are beside themselves with gratitude and Noah, though it goes against all his normal instincts, invites the brave and oddly trouser-clad lady to stay with him on his farm, as the Barr family don't really have the space to entertain visitors. It's pretty much lust at first sight between Noah and Elise, not exactly lessened by the fact that Elise is plastered head to toe in form-fitting boy's attire when they meet. Noah, on the other hand, offers her his dry shirt, so she gets a proper eyeful of his muscular chest.

Elise knows she needs to tell Noah the truth about who she is and why she's there, but holds off for just long enough for things to get really complicated between them. Their palpable chemistry soon lead to kissing, and Elise probably deserves credit for not hiding her true purpose in Nottingham longer, just so she can get into Noah's pants. She has correctly deduced that Noah isn't at all simple or mentally deficient as people told her, but it's also obvious that when he gets upset, he muddles his words and that there's some dark secrets in his past as to how he ended up incognito in Nottingham. Once she learns the truth of what the former Duke did to his "idiot" son, she is appalled, and understands his reluctance to return to London, but the quickest way to help Lady Abigail and get the Dowager Duchess out of Bedlam is if the rightful Duke of Ashland returns to take up his responsibilities. She needs to persuade Noah to get over his very understandable grievances and return with her to London. A sometime informant of Chagarre and Associates, the shady King, a underworld crime boss and illegal art dealer, told Elise that Francis Ellery, just to make sure his cousin was well and truly dead, hired assassins to make sure the rightful duke never shows up in the capital.

Noah is intrigued by this beautiful woman who dresses like a man when travelling and insists she can outshoot any man. She is clearly extremely brave and selfless, having risked her life in a wild river to save a stranger's child. He is hurt when he learns of her initial deception and cannot bear the thought of returning to London. With the exception of his younger sister, no one treated him well. Because of his difficulty with speech, he was kept isolated from everyone else, until the night when he was taken away for good for "treatment". His torment ended with him living rough on the streets of London for years, learning to fight anything and anyone who threatened him and his friend Joshua. He confesses to Elise that he is most likely wanted for murder and that he couldn't possibly leave his farm, his friends and his safe, comfortable life to become a duke.

When the assassins come sneaking, he understands that Elise is right, however. He needs to deal with his cousin Francis, or he will never have any peace. Elise, on the other hand, discovers that Noah doesn't necessarily need a bodyguard and that his years on the street really did teach him survival skills to rival her own. By this point, the main complication to Noah Lawson reappearing in London as Noah Ellery, Duke of Ashland, is that Elise and Noah have fallen pretty hard for each other, and a Duke who has been missing for twenty years needs to be above reproach in all matters. He certainly can't marry an actress of unknown provenance, no matter how good her mastery of languages or disguises.

I first discovered Kelly Bowen last year, when I bought Duke of My Heart in an e-book sale, after hearing many complimentary things about her both by romance readers on the Cannonball Read, and on other romance review sites. As with that book, this features an unorthodox and extremely capable heroine, paired with an intelligent and brave hero, who is nonetheless not even vaguely unsettled or threatened, despite being bested in various ways by the woman. The heroines have previous sexual experience and there is absolutely no mention of or recrimination for her past choices. The couples seem to fall in lust pretty much at first sight and develop into love rather quickly, but as I myself pretty much felt infatuated with Elise when reading about her, I can't really fault Noah for quickly cottoning onto what a good thing he had found and refusing to let go.

The hero and heroine are very likable in this book, and their sexual chemistry is scorching. They keep trying to keep away from each other, with little success and it's very satisfying when they finally do give into their mutual attraction and "insert funky bass line here".

Both Elise's dedication to her mission, and Noah's reluctance to return to London are deeply understandable. Both characters feel drawn to the other, probably partially because they have been keeping secrets and playing a role for so long, whilst with each other, they find that they inadvertently let their guards down and show the other exactly who they truly are. Elise, who has been enjoying her work with Chagarre and Associates for years, now can't get Noah out of her mind and finds her previous wheeling and dealing, covering up scandals for high society tedious and hypocritical.

The main couple are wonderful, I very much enjoyed the supporting cast, especially Ivory and her "pirate captain" duke when they appear in the narrative. There is excellent banter, a plausible obstacle to the couple's happiness. The only weak link is the villain, frankly, who's not really all that terrifying and might be dealt with a little bit too easily. I was excited to check out more of Ms. Bowen's writing after the last book of hers I read, now I doubt I can restrain myself from tracking down her entire back catalogue and reading it as soon as possible. I really hope she can keep up the excellent promise she shows in the Season for Scandal books so far.

One final note, I listened to this as an audiobook, and with the exception of Elise's brother Alexander, who had a raspy voice to the point of Christian Bale Batman-ing, Ashford McNab does an excellent job with the narration. As is often the case with audiobooks I'm really enjoying, towards the end of the book, it was no longer enough to just listen while I ran errands or did chores around the house, I sat on the sofa clutching my phone, apologising to the husband for being so anti-social. I rarely finish audiobooks within 24 hours, but with this, I couldn't not.

Judging a book by its cover: Kelly Bowen writes wonderful historical romance, but she's either cursed with a bad design team, or like Courtney Milan, she self-publishes, and just picks random stock images to adorn the covers of her books. This book is set in the Regency era. The dress on the cover is certainly not in any way appropriate for this time period, nor does it fit the description of anything Elise wears in the book. The plain pink background also clashes badly with the blue of the dress, making the whole thing rather upsetting to my eye.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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