When reading romance, I never doubt for a moment that the hero and heroine will end up together—it wouldn’t be a romance if they didn’t. No matter how emotionally invested I become in a story, I don’t let the angst get to me.
That’s not the only reason I’m a pain-in-the-ass reader, either. Because I’m very well-versed in history, I have a tough time suspending my disbelief. And let’s be honest—in order for a historical romance to be enjoyable, you have to sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy.
Still, I roll my eyes at heroines who run around getting into duels, indulging in consequence-free premarital sex, marrying stratospherically above their stations and yet being warmly welcomed into Society, etc. Not that it never happened, but it happened very, very rarely.
Then I read Gaelen Foley’s The Duke, the first book in her Knight Miscellany series. And by the end of it, I was perfectly willing to ignore the fact that a duke—a duke, mind you—would never have taken for his first wife a woman who’d been, however briefly, one of London’s most coveted courtesans.
As for the angst—it got me. It got me bad.
WARNING – LOADS OF SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Duke grabbed my attention immediately—for starters, the period details are wonderful. Foley knows her Regency history, and she doesn’t leave anachronisms lying around for attentive readers to trip over. I think that’s the secret to selling an implausible story—if your characters are three-dimensional, and your plot is tight, and your historical details are correct down to the minutiae, then your readers will follow where you lead.
Robert “Hawk” Knight, Duke of Hawkscliffe, hires London’s newest and most talked about courtesan, Belinda “Bel” Hamilton, to play his mistress so that he can exact revenge on a very bad man. As it happens, this man also ruined Belinda’s life—because of him, her father was imprisoned and she was raped and forced into luxury whoredom. Robert wants to bring the brute down. Bel does too, and she needs the thousand pounds he’s willing to pay her. Naturally, in the course of their charade, they fall in love.
Belinda is a sweetheart. A kind, intelligent, sensible woman, she’s gently born—not an aristocrat, but solidly middle class and respectable. That is, until her absent-minded academic father got thrown into debtors’ prison. If her father hadn’t been imprisoned, she wouldn’t have been raped and she wouldn’t have become a courtesan. Even then, her chances of marrying someone of Hawk’s standing would have been infinitesimal. As a courtesan, she has no chance at all. It can’t happen.
But she loves him so deeply, and they’re so perfect together, that she tries not to think about the future. When Robert whisks her away from the prying eyes of London society and off to his ancestral pile in the country, she’s blissfully happy at first.
Then reality starts poking little holes in her joy bubble.
First comes one of those awkward moments of miscommunication, the kind that often plagues a couple who haven’t explicitly nailed down their relationship.
“Stay with me. I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life.”
“What do you mean?” She held very still, staring at him with fathomless violet shadows in the depths of her eyes.
Instantly Hawk realized his appalling mistake. Dear God, she thought he was offering marriage. Paling, he stared at her without knowing what he could possibly say.
He watched her absorb his silent, helpless stare and draw her own conclusions.
Her lips were parted slightly as if to speak, but whatever she might have said, she discarded it and merely gave him a wry half smile.
He suppressed a groan of remorse, sliding down her body to kiss the pale silken skin between her breasts. “Oh, angel, the last damned thing I want to do is hurt you,” he said miserably as he laid his head on her chest and clamped his arms around her waist to prevent her angry exit, which he expected within seconds.
“I know,” she whispered, draping her arms softly around his shoulders. “If it were possible—”
“There are limits to what I can do.”
“I know, Hawk, it’s all right,” she snapped, blushing red with angry embarrassment as she started to get up. “Speak of it no more. God’s teeth, I never presumed you would marry me and if you think I have been angling for it, I will leave now and you shall not see me again—”
Okay, that was painful. The “Dear God, she thought he was offering marriage” is downright icky. No matter how much he loves her, and even though he wouldn’t admit it if pressed, he can’t see past her ruination. She’s had sex with exactly two men—the guy who raped her, and Robert. She was a “virgin” courtesan, and hadn’t yet taken a protector, when Hawk found her at the notorious Harriette Wilson’s house. Still, marriage to her is unthinkable.
What makes the skin crawl in that scene is its realism. That’s exactly what would have happened—and frequently did happen—in Regency times when a peer fell in love with a “fallen” woman.
But Bel handled it with aplomb and besides, we all know they’ll end up together, right? So, no worries.
Then she overhears Robert talking to his baby sister and her companion, and Bel begins to comprehend just what staying with Hawk will entail.
“I know you are very fond of Miss Hamilton, girls, but things are much more complicated in Town than they are here. If you so much as nod to her in the park, you risk damage to your reputations.”
“You want us to cut her, Robert?” Jacinda cried.
“It’s not ‘cutting’ her. She understands. It’s not the way I want it, girls, it’s just the way it is.”
“But it will hurt her feelings—”
“And we love her!”
“Of course you do. We all do. Girls, I am only concerned for your future.”
“Are you going to cut her, Robert?” Bel heard Jacinda ask.
“Of course not. The code is different for men, as you well know.”
“She understands.” Oh, oof. When I read that, I swear, my stomach ached on Bel’s behalf. What an awful way to have to live. Is any love worth that kind of degradation?
Belinda wants to think so. She knows Hawk is a good man at heart; there’s much to admire in him (or so she thinks). They’re perfectly matched emotionally, sexually, and intellectually, and she can’t bear the idea of being without him. She decides she’ll be happy with him, no matter what.
And Robert decides he’s keeping her, no matter what. That’s why he hasn’t bothered to say, “Oh, by the way, you do realize I’ll have to marry someone, right? Just, you know, not you?”
Up until this point, I liked Robert. He’s a hot alpha hero, and he knows his way around the sexxing. A bit of a stick in the mud, overly worried about propriety and What Will People Think. He has an excuse, though. His late mother led a scandalous life, and he’s determined to restore the honor of the family name—not just for his own sake but for his younger siblings, whom he’s raised.
Then I realized he was determined to keep Belinda and take a wife, and I thought, “All right, Douchebag. You’d better by God grovel by the end of this thing.” Hawk needs to suffer, a lot, and here’s why:
He knows very well that Belinda is sickened and ashamed at the turn her life has taken. He knows very well that she would never have chosen to become a courtesan. If another man hadn’t raped her, therefore ruining her for marriage (let’s not pine for the past, okay? It was awful in so many ways), she never would have been available for Hawk to fall in love with. Worst of all, he knows very well that there is one line left Belinda will not cross—she won’t belong to a married man.
Yet he’s prepared to snatch this one last scrap of her tattered morality away from her, and he’s already rationalized it to himself. It’s not his fault he can’t marry her. She’s better off under his protection than back on the market, isn’t she?
He’ll do what aristocrats have always done with unsuitable lovers: install her in luxury far away from his respectable life. They can even have kids together—just not his legitimate kids. Those he’ll have to get from his wife. But Belinda will be the only one who’ll ever have his heart, and she’ll be grateful, because she loves him so much and she’ll never find anyone who’ll treat her better.
He swallowed hard. “I want you to know straight off that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just—” He faltered.
He drew a deep breath, visibly steeling himself. “He wants me to marry his daughter, Juliet. And I have agreed.”
Hawk could barely bring himself to hold Belinda’s shocked stare. Her eyes had gone glassy and the color had drained from her face. She sank down into the nearest chair, staring at nothing.
“It doesn’t matter. My relationship with Lady Juliet will be scarcely more than fraternal. You’re the one I love, the one I need. The one who inspires me. You’re my equal. I know you understand my position, Bel. Please, say something.”
“I think I shall be sick,” she whispered.
You know what? I felt sick, too. It was like a punch in the stomach. I can’t remember the last time a book packed such an emotional wallop for me.
What makes it bearable, though, is Belinda’s reaction.
Girlfriend won’t have it.
“Listen to me!” he finally cried, giving her shoulders a shake.
“I need you,” he pleaded in a low, trembling voice. “Don’t go. You’re the only one who understands me. You’re my best friend, Bel—”
“Then how can you treat me this way?” she whispered, tears in her eyes. She stopped fighting all of a sudden and looked away, lifting the back of her hand to her mouth to smother a small sob.
“Oh, Jesus,” he breathed, unable to believe she was slipping through his fingers. Amid seething terror, he somehow persuaded his hands to loosen their hold on her soft shoulders, though everything was spinning out of his control.
Now that he had begun to lose her, he couldn’t seem to make it stop. When he reached to touch her hair, she jerked away. “Come on, Bel. Stop this.”
She doesn’t stop. She takes the money he paid her for their original deal, sells off the carriage and other gifts he gave her, finds a small apartment, and goes about repairing her self-esteem and broken heart.
Douchebag gives her a while to get over it and, then starts to panic. When he tracks her down to her humble lodgings, I really expected him to break down and beg her to marry him.
“What do you want?”
He looked away. “I am here because I did not foresee the need—” He faltered. “My new position requires a good deal of politicking and entertaining which my wife-to-be is quite incapable of carrying out, due to her disability. I require a hostess.” He turned and stared forcefully at her. “Come with me to Vienna.”
Disappointment burst like the Vauxhall fireworks in her solar plexus. So, he was still set on his course. Lady Juliet was still his wife-to-be.
Nope. Still a douchebag.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she forced out.
“I’m not about to make a fool of myself over you, Belinda Hamilton. Now, we’ve both had time to step back and think this over. Perhaps you lost your temper in the country when you walked out on me. I’m willing to overlook that but, by God, I will not crawl for you. Come back to me and let us be as we were, no questions asked. I’m willing to give you this, if it will soothe your vanity.”
Her vanity. It’s vanity that makes Bel want more than a lifetime in the shadows, more than less than half his time, more than his all too easily broken promise to take care of her for the rest of his life. What will she do if he changes his mind? Palimony is not an historical concept.
Have I already mentioned that the reason this pisses me off so much is because it’s so realistic? You know, sometimes I get disgusted at the coarseness of our era, when nine year-old-girls dress like whores and high school girls think they’re required to give blowjobs and college students don’t know what a traditional date looks like. But when I think about returning to the good old days of…the 1960s, when Hawk’s attitude would have still seemed quite logical, I think no. Just, no. Easier to teach our daughters they don’t have to put out than to tell them their entire worth resides between their legs.
Sorry. This pushes my buttons. (Remember me? Mrs. “The Angst Never Gets to Me?” Let’s continue…)
Reaching into his waistcoat pocket, he pulled out a folded piece of parchment.
“What is it?”
“Giving orders again. Very well,” she muttered loftily under her breath as she unfolded the single sheet of paper and read it. Hawk watched her read it with his heart in his throat. He was terrified of her reaction. It was all he could do to hold himself back from pleading with her on his knees to come back to him.
His stare greedily consumed every lovely, familiar curve and plane of her face as she read and reread his missive. I need you, he told her silently. I’m dying without you. She took a deep breath on which, he knew, hung his fate.
The orchid blue flash of her eyes dazed him when she glanced up and met his brooding stare. “Carte blanche?”
Carte freaking blanche! He still won’t marry her, but he figures if he gives her unlimited access to his money, she’ll finally realize what a great catch he is.
It was at this point that I wanted to throw the damn book against the wall. (Which made me wonder—what if I had been reading this on my Kindle? That’s one of the unacknowledged disadvantages of the post-paper era, isn’t it? What are we supposed to do when we read a good old fashioned throw-it-against-the-wall-pisser-offer on an e-reader?)
Anyway. That part where Hawk tells Bel he won’t be a fool for her? He’s wrong, thank goodness.
I don’t think he ultimately suffers nearly enough. I almost wished this had been an Old Skool romance, and Belinda had run off with another dashing guy, travelling around the world a couple of times and having great sex with several other men before finally returning home to be the Duchess of Hawkscliffe.
That’s not quite how it ends. But I figure I’ve spoiled it enough—if you want to know how Foley wrapped this up, go read it yourself. Tasty, tasty despair.