Sunday, 5 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 17: "Between the Devil and the Duke" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 353 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Angelique Archer is desperate for money and needs to make sure that no one in polite society is aware of it. Lucky for her, she is mathematical genius who can do huge amounts of sums in her head and count cards from more than one deck at a time. She's been using her brilliant mind to win substantial amounts of money at vingt-et-un-table in the gaming club of Alexander Lavoie, doing her very best to stay unnoticed to everyone. She needs the money because her father died last year, in a robbery gone wrong. After his death, Angelique and her brother, the new Marquess of Sutton, discovered that their father had been selling off most of the land and estates, with none of the family solicitors aware of where the money from the sales had gone. After they sold off pretty much everything but basic furniture from their town house, even letting all the servants go, Angelique is still struggling to pay the bills and keep her younger twin brothers at their posh boarding school, as is befitting the sons of a marquess. The new Marquess doesn't seem to realise the extent to their money woes, and keeps making very stupid decisions.

While Angelique may have believed herself to be subtle and unnoticed, Alexander Lavoie has been paying close attentions to her comings and goings to his club, especially with the amount of money she's been winning. A man with contacts all over London, it is unusual for him to not have the slightest clue as to her identity, and when a drunken nobleman takes offence at Angelique's spectacular success at the gaming table one evening, Alexander finally has a chance to speak to the mystery lady. He knows she has two gowns she alternates, he knows she lives within walking distance of his club, he suspects that she is very clever and he is dying to discover who she really is and what she needs the money for. After discovering what a genius she is with numbers (she's able to find several clerical errors in his accounting by just looking at a page in his ledger), he offers her a job. He offers to pay her very handsomely to run his vingt-et-un-table for him, using both her beauty and brains to fleece the patrons of their money night after night, making him an even bigger fortune than he already has. He's instantly smitten with her, possibly more for her intelligence than her looks, but has a strict policy about not romancing his staff, so tells himself that if she accepts his job offer, she is off limits.

Angelique is very attracted to Lavoie, and very flattered by his offer, but knows that the daughter (and now sister of) a Marquess cannot work in a gaming establishment, even if her identity was hidden behind a mask. Should the truth come out, her reputation would be ruined. There are also countless rumours about Lavoie - that he's a spy, possibly an assassin and certainly that he's a unrepentant rake. However, when the idiot Marquess steals all her winnings from the club to go buy himself a new coat, the same money that was meant to pay for their brothers' tuition at Harrow, she sees no other option but to accept the job offer. Angelique had just one season out in Society, before her mother took ill and died. Her mother made her wear fashionable dresses that nonetheless were dreadful for Angelique's voluptuous figure and her intelligence and shyness was off-putting to most people. She was given the nickname of the Marble Maiden. When Alexander looks at her or talks to her, Angelique can forget her horrid nickname and she likes the way his obvious attraction makes her feel. Ever sensible, she does recognise how foolish a romantic entanglement between them would be, but is very tempted to act on their mutual pants feelings nonetheless.

When Angelique's younger brother, the selfish and clueless Marquess of Sutton, finds himself caught literally red-handed over the corpse of a blood-drenched maid servant, having apparently broken into a nobleman's house to steal some jewelry, Angelique is distraught. She seeks out the offices of upper class fixer firm Chagarre and Associates, who are rumoured to be able to cover up any scandal, no matter how bad - if the price is right. After speaking to owner, Miss Ivory Moore, Angelique discovers that Alexander, who had already offered her any help she might need, is in fact a part-owner of the company. She accepts how out of her depths she is and agrees to take his assistance.

Working together, Angelique and Alexander discover that the young Marquess most likely was indeed framed, but that this conspiracy is part of some larger, more sinister plot against the Archer family. Alexander suspects that the lingering illness that killed Angelique's mother, as well as the robbery where her father was killed may be linked and that it may all be tied up in the missing family fortune. Will they be able to clear her brother's name? Can the daughter of a marquess and a gambling club owner/spy/possible assassin ever really make a future together?

Much as I liked this book, I take issue with the title, which is just really misleading. The hero isn't really all that devilish, and the only duke in question appears in literally one scene, and plays a very tangential part in the plot. I can only assume that because the other two titles in the series have featured the word "Duke" this one had to as well. I am so glad that I've discovered the books of Kelly Bowen and very much enjoyed both of the previous books in the series, where we meet Alexander Lavoie's associates, the enigmatic Miss Ivory Moore, now the Duchess of Aldridge, and his sister Elise DeVries, now the Duchess of Ashland. In both of the previous books, the heroines have been incredibly resourceful and capable in a number of fields and very accomplished investigators, who have lived colourful lives. Angelique has lived a more sheltered life, and has been made to feel embarrassed about her brilliant mathematical abilities. The high-born daughter of a nobleman shouldn't be interested in such intellectual pursuits. She may not have as varied a skill-set as the previous two women, but she's brave, and stubborn and determined to figure out a way to save her family, even as her brother seems to be blithely and ignorantly sabotaging her at every turn.

Before her mother took ill, and her season took a turn for the worse, there were rumours that Angelique might in fact be matched with Viscount Seaton, heir to a Duke (I honestly can't be bothered to look up his name). Yet none of this came to be, and when her brother is accused of murder, neither of his so-called closest friends, the Viscount Seaton or Baron Burleigh offer any sort of help, but rather try to distance themselves from the scandal. She realises that she can't really help her brother on her own, and even though it's inappropriate, she accepts Alexander's aid, because she's desperate and he makes her feel both appreciated, wanted and safe.

As with the heroes in the previous two books, Alexander is just as attracted to the formidable abilities and intelligence of the heroine as he is by her beauty. It's obvious from very early on that he's completely gaga for Angelique, and everyone know it, but he doesn't even care if the world knows it. He finds her gorgeous and her brilliance and unusual abilities fascinate him. While he's experienced with women, he has never emotionally connected with any of them, but feels wildly protective of Angelique from the beginning. It made for a nice change that the hero was the more emotionally open one here, accepting his infatuation of Angelique early on in the book, but still trying his best not to take advantage of his position as her employer or the one trying to clear her brother's name. He always allows her to take the lead in any romantic encounter, respecting her boundaries and reservations.

Sadly, because I found Angelique's brother, the idiot Marquess (again, can't be bothered to look up his actual name) to be insufferably stupid, I didn't really care if he got hanged for a murder he didn't commit. The whole thing with the plot against the Archer family and the reasons for it felt needlessly melodramatic and silly to me, and distracted me from the very nice central romance of Angelique and Alexander. The resolution of it felt a bit forced, so as to make it more acceptable for Angelique to be with a man like Alex. So while I loved their initial meeting and pretty much every scene with just the two of them, the mystery of why and how someone wanted to ruin the Archers made this my least favourite.

I still have every intention of reading more Kelly Bowen, though, and have bought all of her previous novels, trusting that on the basis of this trilogy, I will very much enjoy her earlier books too. If I keep being impressed, she's pretty much guaranteed a spot on my Auto-Buy list with her next romance. 

Judging a book by its cover:  I've already commented on how dumb the title of the book is. The entire Season for Scandal series has had bad covers. I still think I dislike the one for A Duke to Remember the most. This has a garish combination of bright yellow background and a lurid purple gown bedecking the cover model. She has blond hair like Lady Angelique, but the dress looks nothing like a Regency gown and at no point in the story does Angelique ever wear bright purple. Normally a colour I really like, it really doesn't work with the coloured backdrop at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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