Lady Madeline Essex is the last of the unwed “ducklings” in her family—and by far the most outspoken. But when she boldly enters London’s most notorious gaming house in search of fodder for her novel, even her sharp tongue can’t save her from the horrible crime she stumbles upon there. As luck would have it, first on the scene is the last man she wants to see her vulnerable. The one man who could tempt her heart…
Christian Monteith, the new Earl of Gresham, isn’t much for card rooms and gaming hells. But as a favor to his former commanding officer, he’s investigating a gamester for espionage on the night that Maddie ventures in looking more enticing than he’s ever seen her. Suddenly, his feelings for his friend aren’t so friendly anymore. And when her curiosity brings the impetuous novelist to the attention of a madman, Christian will stop at nothing to protect her—from a sinister plot that is far more dangerous than any stolen kiss…
This Is the third (and final) novel in Manda Collins’ Ugly Ducklings series in which we follow the romantic adventures of three cousins who are regarded as rather odd by society because of their outspokenness, blue-stocking tendencies, and independent natures.
When I read the first book in the series, How to Dance with a Duke, I rated it at 3 stars on Goodreads and said that while I found it to be engaging in places, I was disappointed overall – and I experienced much the same reaction to this book.
The heroine is Lady Madeleine Essex, mostly known as Maddie (which immediately struck me as rather too modern in tone). Like her cousins Cecilia and Juliet, she is intelligent and independent of spirit – but sadly, her intelligence doesn’t preclude her from doing some incredibly stupid things. At the beginning of the book, she decides that she needs to attend a gaming hell in order to do some research for the novel she is planning to write (of which, incidentally, she never writes a single word during the whole course of the book). Naturally, the male friend she asks to take her refuses, so she inveigles her brother into taking her along.
Here, for me, was the point at which I started to get depressed about the direction the story was going to take. For one thing, putting a young woman in a series of pretty frocks and sending her to balls and Almacks does not an historical romance make – and for another, neither does sending the heroine into a gaming hell with the thought that –
“It was not at all unusual for ladies of the ton to seek out a bit of excitement by attending such parties… They might tarnish their reputations a bit by doing so, but the damage was hardly irreparable.“
From then on, Maddie is continually involved in situations that no well brought-up daughter of an earl should ever have contemplated. It’s not her fault that she ends up finding a dead body, but from then on, she insists on being involved in the “investigation” into the death, despite the frequent insistence of the hero (more of him shortly) that she is endangering herself by doing so. Even more annoyingly, she sees every move of his designed to protect her as an attempt on his part to question her intelligence and/or exclude her from said investigation.
The hero of the story is one Christian Monteith, the newly-minted Earl of Gresham, and a friend of Maddie’s, her cousins, and their husbands for a long time. The “friends-become-lovers” trope is rather a favourite of mine, so I had hoped that once the romance between Gresham and Maddie got underway, I would start to enjoy the book a little more. But as the story progressed, I realised that there was a sad lack of romantic and sexual tension between them and I really didn’t get a sense of the way their relationship transformed from their being friends to being lovers. It’s clear that there’s an attraction between them from the outset, but when, in one scene, they were talking as friends one moment, and in the next were all over each other without any build up, it felt forced.
Christian is a fairly likeable hero – handsome and honourable, he does care deeply for Maddie and wants to protect her while he makes inquiries and investigates the mystery surrounding the murder which leads to her brothers’ disappearance. There is brief mention of the fact that he is tormented by his sister’s suicide and that he has a fractured relationship with his mother, but apart from one brief scene, not much is made of it, although the author makes it clear that Christian’s urge to protect Maddie at all costs is somewhat born of his earlier inability to protect his sister and his subsequent guilt.
The mystery itself is fairly intriguing and was, I felt, more successful than the romance.
There were a number of production errors that I found irritating, and which could easily have been solved by the employment of a good proof-reader. For example, at one point, Gresham’s eyes are green; and a few pages later, they’re blue. And for some reason, Gresham is referred to as such – until, for some reason, his name reverts to Monteith… then back to Gresham for the bulk of the book… until once again, he is referred to as Monteith. I am disinclined to think that this is a case of the author’s not knowing that an earl is referred to by his title rather than his family name; it reads to me more like an uncorrected error.
My biggest peeve however, was with the fact that Maddie was so heedless of her reputation when, at the time the story is set, a woman’s reputation – particularly that of a young, unmarried woman – was so vitally important to her prospects in life. Not only does she visit a gaming hell with her brother, she attends a party hosted by a widow thought to be rather ‘fast’ with Gresham and finally talks her cousin’s husband into kitting her out so that she can enter a brothel disguised as a man.
Overall then, I didn’t find reading this book to be a particularly satisfying experience. It was mildly entertaining in places, and despite my reservations, I still think that Manda Colins is a good writer – but I felt that the characters never became more than one-dimensional and the romance fell sadly flat.