Sunday 10 September 2017

#CBR9 Book 79: "The Duchess Deal" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 389 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Miss Emma Gladstone was a respectable clergyman's daughter until a foolish indiscretion made her father condemn her and forced her to walk all the way to London during the winter. She lost a toe. Now she's making a living as a seamstress, but will be fired if she doesn't get paid for the extravagant and somewhat excessive gown she created for Annabelle Worthing, until recently betrothed to the Duke of Ashbury. To make sure she's taken notice of, she dons the over the top gown and visits the reclusive Duke in person to demand her money.

George Pembrooke, the Duke of Ashbury, known as Ash to the few friends he has left, was badly scarred in the Napoleonic wars. One side of his face and much of his upper body is ravaged by burn scars and the results of the army surgeons trying to save his life. With his engagement to Miss Worthing dissolved, he still needs to find a suitable wife to give him an heir. He takes his duties seriously and refuses to surrender his people and properties to his dissolute cousin. He's taken by surprise by the forthright Miss Gladstone and impulsively proposes marriage to her. She believes he is jesting with her and obviously refuses, but once he's settled on the idea, he decides that only she will do.

Once Emma realises that the Duke of Ashbury is entirely serious, she accepts, because she would be a fool not to. Becoming a duchess isn't a chance any woman should pass up, even if the duke is a self-loathing, brooding and rather imperious sort of man. While the scars are obviously impossible to ignore, Emma nevertheless finds Ash very attractive and suspects that she may find making an heir with him rather enjoyable. Ash has certain terms for the marriage. 1) They will be husband and wife at night only. 2) No lights or kissing. 3) No questions about his scars and 4) Once Emma is pregnant with is heir, Ash will send her to an estate in the country and she will never have to share his bed again. Miss Palmer, one of Emma's high-born customers at the modiste is pregnant, and terrified to tell her father. As Emma knows all too well how devastating parental disapproval can be, she promises to help, and if she gets pregnant quickly, she'll be able to invite Miss Palmer to come stay with her in the countryside until the babies are born, with no one being the wiser.

Of course, Emma refuses to live in an entirely emotionless marriage. She insists that she and Ash have dinner together every night and she refuses to take him too seriously. She brings a feral tomcat with her when she arrives, and Breeches, as she names the beast, proceeds to terrorise the household. Refusing to call her husband by his given name, George (it was also her father's name), Ash or the formal Duke, she proceeds to try every endearment and pet name under the sun, in order to tease him. She tries to keep herself from falling too deeply for her husband, not wanting to get hurt, but the meddlesome servants of the Duke's household do whatever they can to constantly throw the Duke and the Duchess together, desperate for them to fall in love, so Ashbury will lighten up a bit and stop making their lives more difficult with his brooding and self-pity.

Elyse over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books described this book as "a fairytale Regency that blends Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella and Batman". She's not wrong! This book has all of those elements. The Cinderella element is obviously the seamstress becoming a duchess. Tessa Dare has a previous romance with a huge gap in social status between the couple, when she has a barmaid marrying a duke in Any Duchess Will Do. That book is also excellent and one of my favourites of her back catalogue. Without wanting to spoil too much, the Batman subplot comes into the story because cranky and brooding Ash tends to wander the London streets at night rather than allow himself to sleep next to his wife, and will frequently beat up muggers and other ne'er-do-wells who try to attack him or others to channel some of his aggression. There's even a lovably young lad who insists on becoming his loyal sidekick.

This is the first book in a new series for Dare, entitled Girl Meets Duke. As well as befriending and doing her best to help Miss Palmer, Emma also makes the acquaintance of four eccentric young ladies on the other side of the square, many of whom I suspect will be heroines in future adventures. Before this book came out, I was in really a rather serious reading slump. I had only finished ONE single book in all of August, as well as re-reading one. With The Duchess Deal, I could barely put the book down. I read until far too late into the night, making me seriously sleep-deprived at work the next day, and spent every available minute I had to spare reading more. I finished the book in less than twelve hours and was so thoroughly delighted and entertained by it.

Tessa Dare tends to have a lot of rather frivolous and unlikely plot elements in her historical romances, and I can understand that for some readers, some of the seeming anachronisms and silliness can get a bit much. I thought this was her best book in years and absolutely loved it. The 'Beast of Mayfair' storyline went on for a bit longer than I would have liked, and Ash really did take way too long to realise how lucky he was to have Emma, but I also loved that he only swore in Shakespearean quotes and the bit where his long-suffering butler, Khan, finally has enough and loses his temper was worth the price of admission alone. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a quick, fun and diverting read. Even Mrs. Julien, who has previously occasionally found Tessa Dare's books to be too silly for her, liked this one a lot. I'm already looking forward to the next in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: I really can't remember which side of Ash is horribly scarred, but based on this cover image, it really can't be his left side, or there have been some serious omissions from the cover designer. I don't hate the cover, but I'm not sure I personally would have chosen what looks like a soft-focus stock photo from a slightly raunchy wedding shoot as the cover for a Regency romance. The dress the woman is wearing is far too modern for the time period, you can't just put the male model in a poofy shirt and expect that to be enough to signal "period clothing".

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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