Miss Bates’s heart went pitter-patter when Kelly Bowen’s hero in Duke Of My Heart first appeared. The heroine is ignorant of his duca-city and has “the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.” This is no ordinary ducal presence, suave, roguish, rakey, or even beta; this duke is PIRATICAL. And piratical is good: we don’t have enough ship-board romance and we need more! Alas, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge is no more piratical than a Regency spinster. He is, however, a “hulking” presence and Miss Bates settled into Bowen’s Regency romance with smug satisfaction.
Maximus unexpectedly returns from India to an in-an-uproar household and Ivory Moore’s presence, a stranger in his rarely-occupied home. He is one irritated, confused duke. Max’s beloved eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Beatrice is missing; his Aunt Helen, beside herself; and, one naked, dead Earl of Debarry, aka the “Earl of Debauchery,” is tethered to his sister’s bed with red, satin ribbons. The scandal, she is HUGE! What was a spinster aunt to do but call on the ton’s detective-fixer, Ivory Moore, to hold back scandal and locate Beatrice.
Miss Bates loves a hero whose bark is growly and incensed, but whose heart is lamb-like. This is Maximus, railing and sputtering as the capable, ton-savvy Miss Moore takes him in hand. They spirit away Debarry’s body and make it look like he died of a heart attack instead of in the arms of the duke’s now-missing sister. Ivory advises Max to descend to the tittering ball and make like everything’s under control. He will have to, however, appear ducally-clad. Her officious management, a heroine trait Miss Bates adores, is evident in their exchange in the duke’s dressing-room:
“You cannot appear like a barbarous, disheveled pirate on the same night that your ball ends because there is a dead man in your guest room.”
“What did you just call me?”
“I didn’t call you anything. I simply commented upon your current appearance.” Ivory had reached the wardrobe and stopped. “Do you need me to shave you?”
Alderidge’s jaw dropped open. “What?”
This is the tone of the novel’s first third or so: droll, banter-ish, and fun. Maximus and Ivory are easy to like from their opening scenes and remain so to the end.
But it isn’t long before a sober note enters. Bowen’s Duke Of My Heart isn’t a frothy read, though it has its fun and funny moments. Lady Beatrice’s disappearance reveals a corrupt, exploitative aristocratic world, mingling with the Bill Sykes of the criminal underworld. Maximus and Ivory have to pit their wits against a network of debauched aristocrats who use the weak and vulnerable for sport and pleasure. As Maximus works with Ivory to return Beatrice to her family’s safe, loving bosom, he gets to know a loving, compassionate, and lethally intelligent woman; she sips tea with the ton in their drawing-rooms and waltzes at their balls, yet is not of them. Her independence, competence, and mystery fascinate him:
There was a critical question he’d failed to answer and that was who Miss Moore was. Her accent was that of a lady. Her address was that of a courtesan. Her furnishings were those of a princess. Her occupation was that of a confidence artist. Or worse.
How Ivory Moore came to be who she is and her journey to this place of self-sufficiency is heart-breaking. It is one of the novel’s strongest story-lines and worth reading for that alone.
And yet, Miss Bates cannot say that she was thoroughly captivated by Bowen’s Duke Of My Heart. She thought the novel’s first two-thirds was heavily plotted to the romance’s and characterization’s detriment. Miss Bates learned about Maximus and Ivory in dribs and drabs, piecemeal, and yet she yearned to know more of them. The novel was interesting in a page-turning kind of way without being emotionally engaging, which, to Miss Bates, is the genre’s raison d’être. Then, the last third made a melodramatic about-face. Miss Bates loved this. That emotional engagement finally came to the novel’s fore-ground. But the mystery’s resolution, which was bound up with the romantic one, was hasty and confusing. While Miss Bates loved Maximus’s final romantic gesture, she never understood the underlying reasons for it. Why Maximus and Ivory couldn’t be together remained vague and under-developped. They were free and wealthy, didn’t give a hoot for the ton’s opinion, and loved each other. The “impediments” to their “marriage of true minds” were contrived. With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Bowen’s Duke Of My Heart offers the romance reader “real comfort,” Emma.
Kelly Bowen’s Duke Of My Heart is published by Forever (Grand Central Publishing). It was released on January 26th, 2016, and is available in e-format and paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Forever, via Netgalley.