Difficult Dukes, Book 1
Heat Factor: There’s a good deal of yearning and burning
Character Chemistry: Aces: I’ve known who you are for years. Why did it take me so long to realize you’re my other half?
Plot: Runaway bride snares groom’s best friend, angst ensues
Overall: Loved it!
There was once a young woman who was getting a little long in the tooth. She wasn’t likely to receive any marriage proposals, so when a young and reckless duke decides she’s really kind and might be a nice wife, she considers her position and accepts. Her five brothers, after all, will need to be rescued from her impecunious father.
Her wedding day arrives, and the scene opens with our bride of the impecunious antecedents reconsidering her life choices with the help of a bit of spiked tea. The end result of this profound cogitation was a precipitous flight out the library window. Fortunately or unfortunately for her, our young and reckless duke has two young and reckless duke friends, one of whom espies a bit of skirt making its way out a window.
Groom Duke, unfortunately prone to inebriation, has requested that his dear friend, Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, come prepared with ready money and common sense to ensure that the wedding goes off without a hitch. Because Groom Duke is still a little drunk from the prior night’s festivities, he’s relying on his friend. So when the wedding is delayed due to the bride’s disappearing act and her family passes around the champagne to keep the guests occupied, positively ensuring that the alcoholic groom is totally wasted, Ripley has no honorable choice but to do as his friend has asked and solve the problem of the skittish bride so that his friend can marry this nice woman without a… Well, maybe with only a slight hitch.
Because our slippery bride is intoxicated from not only the spiked tea but also the flask of fortification she pilfered from her brother, she’s not inclined to listen to reason or anything else when Ripley catches up to her. Lady Olympia Hightower has been very good and very boring for a very long time, but when it’s come to the point, she just can’t envision a future with the Duke of Ashmont. She’s going to run to her aunt, and no one will stop her. Ripley decides not to argue with alcohol and goes along with Olympia so nothing bad happens to her. And really, this Duke’s-best-friend-absconding-with-Duke’s-bride adventure is the story.
It’s fun. There are misadventures (how could there not be?). There are magical moments (one can’t really be blamed for being susceptible to a well-built man’s naked back side). There’s a good deal of witty repartee without the obvious work of it we might see elsewhere. For example:
“I can’t weep on command,” she said.
“Think of something heartbreaking, like saying goodbye to me forever.”
If she had a sane segment of brain remaining, she’d jump up and down with delight and relief. Instead, she felt unhappy and panicky.
She looked at him. “It doesn’t seem to be working,” she said.
His black brows met over his nose. “How curious. That usually produces buckets of tears–until I produce the rubies or diamonds or whatever.”
“I told you this dress was a problem,” she said. “Because of it, you’ve confused me with one of your paramours. Weeping for jewelry is not, to my knowledge, the procedural method of a librarian.”
Before long, both Olympia and Ripley realize they love one another, but Olympia’s engagement to Ashmont is a problem, and Chase explores this beyond just the obvious, superficial angst we so often see in historical romance. We’re looking at friendship and honor and legal obligations, and it’s well executed for a modern audience that is not super well educated about Honor, because our modern definition of honor does not equal the sort of Honor that led to duels.
Let’s begin with the low-hanging fruit. During this period, betrothal was a legally binding contract, making the wedding something of a formality. Marriage also transferred ownership of a woman from her father to her husband, so when Ripley says Olympia is Ashmont’s property, he’s not exaggerating for the sake of his friendship. Olympia’s family is not very well-to-do, so they can’t really afford to pay her fiancé to dissolve the contract. Also, running away on the day of the wedding and throwing over your fiancé for his best friend is not the way to end an engagement if you’re hoping for an amicable break.
Then, too, setting aside the discussion of Honor for the time being, we can readily sympathize with Ripley’s struggle over his feelings for Olympia. He knows how much Ashmont is looking forward to marrying Olympia. He sees exactly why Ashmont values her. He doesn’t want to betray his best friend. How can he be true to himself and not make the worst mistake of his life and also not lose his best friend?
And now for that pesky Honor. Even for a reader without historical training in this area, Chase is able to make the point about Honor as opposed to honor, and we buy it, which is hard. Almost every lecture I’ve heard about Honor involved at least one, “But that’s stupid, why would they do that?” moment. Modern Western (Western-European) culture doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for a man of Honor. So when Ripley and Ashmont are duking (giggle) it out, there’s definitely a little bit of that eye rolling (well presented on the page for us by Olympia, so Chase is definitely working with us here), but when it comes to the point, we are able to understand and accept (it is a story, after all) why they’ve made the choices they’ve made. This was a marvelously refreshing take on men of Honor in romance novels.
So the struggle is real. But the romance between Ripley and Olympia is playful and full of heat. It all made for a delightful package.
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