It is a truth universally to be accepted by readers of historical romance that a young woman, if beloved by the man of her dreams, will blossom under the sun of love and acceptance. This proves to be true for Boston-bred Penelope Clayton in Callie Hutton's The Duke's Quandary. After the death of her father, a noteworthy botanist and her frequent collaborator, Penelope moved back to England, where she lived a quiet life in the country. Surrounded by plants and books, Penelope’s sole interaction with the outside world is in her secret role as a male botanist—one with a growing reputation in the field. This pastoral existence, like Eden, cannot endure, and one day Penelope’s aunt writes to say that a London Season is a must.
I feel I would not be doing justice to my sister’s memory by allowing her only child to rusticate in the country, faced with no more of a future than life as a spinster.
Penelope is socially awkward and a bit clumsy as well, mostly because she has not been encouraged to wear her glasses in public. Who of us could glide through life if we couldn’t see where we were going? When Penelope arrives in London she does not make a particularly good impression on the young Duke of Manchester and his bevy of sisters.
Spectacles slid halfway down her nose, and she tilted her head back, apparently attempting to keep them on her head. Her pelisse was haphazardly buttoned, and she held something wrapped in a cloth close to her chest.
Clumps of dirt fell from the material, landing on her pelisse, and then dropping unceremoniously to the floor. She attempted a smile, but her quivering lips never quite made it.
Not a particularly impressive introduction to the family that is going to introduce her to the mysteries of the ton, but Drake’s mother and his sisters are particularly likeable, seeing beyond Penelope’s nervous awkwardness. Their older sister Marion, Lady Tunstall, is a widow, still mourning the death of her husband, and Penelope, when she hears this, is moved by sympathy to reach out to Marion. She also realizes that her upbringing, devoid of a female friend or relative, has left her vulnerable and unprepared in the arena of social skills.
Even though Penelope is wise beyond her years, she is still in awe of the duke’s sisters, saying to him, “…I am a bit overwhelmed by the number of feminine accomplishments your sisters possess.” Dutton again and again finds opportunities for Penelope and Drake to have quiet, meaningful conversations while not neglecting the tragicomic instances of female loose cannons blasting some fresh air into the ballrooms of the ton. Think Balogh’s Christine and the practically perfect Duke of Bedwyn from Slightly Dangerous.
Drake is puzzled by his attraction to Penelope, and being a man of reason, wants to remedy that by getting to know her better. He offers to take her to that mecca for intellectual heroines, the bookstore. Whereas it so often seems that courting couples meet in the library, late at night, not here. Penelope is a shadowy creature tending her precious seedlings in the garden, which is where Drake discovers her one evening. He cannot understand why she wants to muck around in the dark.
“I’m a botanist, and that’s what I do. Most people don’t understand it, and see my activities as strange. Hence, the cover of darkness.”
He finally hears her words. She sees herself as strange and in all truthfulness, he does as well. She tells him emphatically that she does not want a husband. But there’s more to romantic chemistry than mere science and Penelope and Drake are inextricably drawn to each other. Under the cover of darkness they kiss, unable to fight “the intense physical awareness between them.” The crux of their conflict is that Penelope sees herself only as a scientist and Drake sees himself not as a man falling in love, but as a duke, with a duke’s responsibilities. He’s very blunt.
“This cannot continue. I need a wife this year, but someone who knows the ton, who can step into the position of duchess.” He looked her up at her, his jaw set. “I need to be very careful of my selection.”
Perhaps you’re thinking good riddance to Drake, find a more compatible mate but Penelope and Drake, beyond the luscious lust that sparks frequently between them, have much in common. Both of them have been forced into new roles that alarm them, making them rigid out of fear of the unknown. His father died too young and Drake is determined to be the perfect duke, forgetting the passionate, often out-of-the-ordinary the life his parents created for themselves. Penelope thinks her science will provide all the succor and excitement she needs. Of course both are wrong.
The ever-expedient interlude at the ball forces a marriage between the two (think of The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn) and turns out to be quite lovely because a real love grows between them after they’re married. I like so much that blissful lovemaking doesn’t cause Penelope to abandon her desire to continue her scientific research. When Drake promises to be a good husband to her, putting her happiness foremost, the real marital conversation ensues.
“Does that mean I can continue with my science?”
He leaned back and blew out a sigh. “Dabbling in science is not an appropriate pastime for a duchess…he reached out to caress her cheek, his eyes darkening with passion, “eventually there will be children who will need your attention.”
Ignoring the jolt to her insides at his comment about children, she focused on another part of his decree. “Science is not a pastime. It is my work. “She stiffened her spine. “I’ve spent most of my life ‘dabbling,’ as you so casually state, in botany—a legitimate branch of science.”
And so Callie Hutton gives the duke a quandary that must be sorted out in the second half of the story. The solution that Penelope and Drake arrive at is as original as their romance.
Janet Webb, Blogger