I could tell Project Duchess was the start of a new Jeffries series by the plethora of family members who were introduced in the prologue. With that, it’s also fair to say that Jeffries’s romance has family ties as one of its central themes. Because Jeffries’s thematic hand is light and her tone humorous, there be a few dark moments, Project Duchess is a droll, heartwarming series début.
Embedded in the introduction to its many characters (all of whom could potentially serve as heroes and heroines in volumes to come), the prologue sets up the series’ premise. Each potential h/h stems from one Lydia Fletcher, the dowager duchess of not one, not two, but three dukes and all her ducal offspring. When the novel opens, duke#3 has expired and the lone son/child of her first RIP duke, Fletcher Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, 34, with a rake-hell reputation, unjustly so, has been called from his home in London’s Mayfair to his stepfather’s funeral in Armitage Hall, Lincolnshire. Except for one dash to London, the action takes place on this estate. From the get-go, we know that “Grey”, as he’s called, has been estranged from his family, not totally, and not with great enmity, but there is distance and hurt feelings.
When Grey arrives, many of his half-siblings are already there, or pending arrival, and everything is in the chaos of funeral preparations. At the centre of the organizing is one Beatrice Wolfe, related to duke#3, but not to Lydia, or by extension any of her offspring. Which is good. Because Beatrice is Grey’s love interest. Jeffries portrays a quipping, boisterous family wonderfully. Though there is some strain with Grey, there is also no doubt that everyone has nothing but love and liking and a good, healthy dose of teasing and bantering, even in the midst of genuine grief. Grey and Beatrice are thrown together, especially when the weepy Lydia decides to continue working on Beatrice and her daughter’s, Gwyn’s, débuts. As a result, Grey is recruited to help with their dance lessons and one marvelous sexy dance-instruction scene ensues. There’s some mild antagonism between Beatrice and Grey, but overall, it’s obvious they’re compatible and suited.
Complications arise when the 3rd duke’s heir, Sheridan, takes Grey into his confidence that he suspects his father was murdered and suspicion falls on Beatrice’s brooding, PTSD-suffering brother, Joshua. This is where the novel fell apart. Grey, who is supposed to be smart and sophisticated, appears an utter ninny when he skulks around suspecting Joshua and even Beatrice. How ridiculous he appears. Where the humorous ridiculousness of h/h banter totally works to make this a charming read, the whole “who murdered the duke thread?” is meh and unconvincing. I didn’t care for it. Jeffries needed more than Grey’s “I can’t open up to love, I’ll be hurt and vulnerable” and Lydia’s “I”m too poor for a duke to marry me” misgivings. So, there’s the who-killed-Maurice thread to fill up the pages.
What works are the family dynamics. Okay, they may be somewhat anachronistic (these are not class-based Regency types), but they’re fun and heartwarming. Lydia and her various sons and daughters work things out by being honest with each other. And their teasing and gently poking is all part of the affection. As for the romance, Grey and Beatrice share a friendship and powerful attraction. They have a similar mindset: sharp, honest, and blunt. I liked them a lot, both together and apart. And there aren’t any big misunderstandings or secrets, thanks be to the romance gods: they talk, they recognize the value of openness and honesty and they share a mutual, healthy, and fun lust. Again, even though this felt you could transport the narrative to a contemporary romance and it would read fine, it didn’t diminish the reading pleasure, just the plausibility. A lovely start to a series that looks to continue as it began. With Miss Austen, we deem Jeffries’s Project Duchess offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Sabrina Jeffries’s Project Duchess is published by Zebra Books. It was released on June 25 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Zebra Books, via Netgalley.