Recommended Read, Review, The Duke Project

Review: A Duke to Remember by Kelly Bowen (2016)

A Season for Scandal, Book 2

Heat Factor: Sexy

Character Chemistry: Soul mates at first sight

Plot: Despite being full of action, actually serves the romance

Overall: Good read

This is a story about two extremely damaged people becoming whole through the power of true love. So, while the plot is full of complicated machinations and assassins and people getting committed to Bedlam for spurious reasons (yes, this happens to more than one person), really all of that is very incidental to the connection between Elise and Noah.

Elise is a chameleon. By night, she’s an actress, and by day she works as an investigator for a discrete and very elite firm which solves delicate problems for huge sums of money. She puts on a costume, and becomes someone else, which is very useful when the firm needs a doctor or a French countess to do a job for them. She is also an excellent tracker, so when the mysteriously disappeared Duke of Ashland needs to be found, she’s on the job.

Noah, said missing Duke of Ashland, disappeared from polite society at the age of 10, and was sort of declared dead five years later, but never officially. He’s been living a very quiet life for years on a farm out in the country (unclear where he got the money to buy the land or pay his housekeeper or get the raw materials to build his farmhouse, but never mind that), and plans on never going back.

Elise and Noah meet by accident, and feel an immediate bond. Elise is no dummy, so she quickly figures out who Noah really is, but it takes her a bit to tell Noah who she is and why she is there – i.e., to bring him back to London so he can help his mother and sister out of a tricky spot, and also reclaim his place in society. When she does tell him, he’s angry for the deception, but mainly, he doesn’t want to go. He harbors a long-lasting and completely justifiable grudge against his mother, and has no desire for the money and power that comes with being a Duke. He’s happy in his small corner of the world. Until, that is, he realizes that having power means that he has a great deal of control over this life, and over the lives of others, and that, my friends, is too great an incentive to resist.

The first half of the book includes a great gender role reversal. Elise is a former soldier, so she’s not just a tracker, she’s also a crack shot who has experience dealing out death when necessary. She sets herself up as Noah’s protector, and is a general all-around bad-ass. Noah is a beautiful man with a gentle soul who grows exquisite roses and just wants to be left alone.

Unfortunately, Noah’s gentle beta persona is not to last. You see, he lived in the slums of London for several years during his lost youth, and learned how to fight – dirtily and effectively. And when he decides to reclaim his position as the Duke, he changes. Elise reflects on the transformation:

Noah’s face was set in hard lines, his eyes guarded, his expression grim and unreadable. She admitted that there was a small part of her that mourned for Noah Lawson. Mourned on his behalf the loss of a life so very different from the one he would step into. Mourned the loss of the simple pleasures like games of soldiers and chess with children at a dining room table where the chairs didn’t match. Noah was doing the right thing, she knew. But it wasn’t without cost.

The shift in Noah – from powerless to powerful, from hermit to duke – makes this book a particularly interesting case study of Dukes in romance novels. Maybe that gentle soul who grows roses is still in there, but we don’t see him any more. Instead, he focuses on his duty as a powerful man. Granted, this duty does allow him to help the people who helped him when he lived a solitary life, but it seems that his time building farmhouses is well and truly over.

While I don’t really dig the whole “love at first sight” trope so common in romances, Kelly Bowen does have a knack for writing excellent sex scenes; I believe their love partially because of the way their physical relationship plays out. The sex scenes are hot AND provide important character development. When Elise and Noah first consummate their love, there is a thunderstorm raging outside, so most of the undressing takes place in the dark, with strategic moments illuminated by the lighting. The intermittent light heightens the tension as it builds between them:

She met him stroke for stroke, feeling the tension within her build, the coiling of energy and anticipation winding tighter and tighter. Beneath her the bed pitched and rocked, while above the thunderstorm still raged, drowning out the sounds of flesh on flesh and the small noises of desire.

But the lightning also allows space for reflection, since they aren’t so focused on seeing one another’s bodies.

Chilled air intruded into the space between them as a fork of lightning sent a blinding flash through the room and thunder crashed overhead. Noah leaned forward, despising even that small distance between them. He ran a finger over her bottom lip, now swollen and soft. Another surge of possessiveness roared through him, a craving so acute that it was physical pain.

They have a beautiful conversation right beforehand, where Elise confesses that since she’s always in costume, she doesn’t know who she is any more, but that for this moment, she wants to be his. This idea of finding your true self again with another person is repeated throughout the rest of the book, especially for Elise, as she grapples with the fact that she cannot be with a Duke the way she can be with the man who is just Noah.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t quite keep up with the rest of the book. There is an insurmountable problem to be addressed – the Dowager Duchess is locked up, and only the Duke can release her – but they seem to have no trouble whatsoever introducing the Duke back into society, even though he hasn’t been seen in literally twenty years. The evil cousin is dispatched in about 15 seconds. The initial problem ends up not being much of a problem at all. This is great if you only care about the relationship between Elise and Noah, but if you want some balance between romance and plot, you might come away disappointed.

Even though the plot is tied up a bit too neatly, there is still tension throughout the book because Bowen does do villains really well. In this case, we have the main villain, a cousin who wants the Dukedom and all the money that goes with it, but we also have a large cast of minor villains, who are everyday people who do reprehensible things – because these things are convenient or necessary, because it’s a job. The world is an ugly place, and Elise and Noah have both been privy to that ugliness. If you prefer your romances to be fun escapist beauty, this is not the book for you.

A final note: Kelly Bowen writes great books. But the cover and title are TERRIBLE.* The title has no meaning and doesn’t apply to the story at all, and the image of the woman, presumably Elise, does not capture her spirit in the slightest. Not terrible enough to inspire a rant, but I’ll be honest, I would have not picked up this book except for the fact that I loved the first book of hers I read. Forever Romance by Hatchette: Do better by your authors, please and thank you!

*For an example of a good cover, see Once a Soldier by Mary Jo Putney. I didn’t dig the book, but that cover is on point – it perfectly captures Athena’s personality and refers to a pivotal scene in the book. Furthermore, the title evokes a range of associations which can be applied to Will, Athena, and their adventures together.

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