What the Duke Desires (The Duke’s Men #1) by Sabrina Jeffries

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Maximilian Cale, the Duke of Lyons, long ago buried his grief for his missing elder brother, Peter, who was presumed dead after being kidnapped. When a mysterious note arrives from Tristan Bonnaud asserting that the Duke’s brother is alive, it leads Max straight to the winsome Lisette Bonnaud, illegitimate daughter of a viscount and Tristan’s sister. Soon he and Lisette are traveling to Paris posing as husband and wife, in search of Tristan, who has disappeared. And the longer he spends with Lisette, the easier it is for Max to see that the line between dukedom and desire is easier to cross than he imagined…

Rating: A-

What the Duke Desires is the first in a new series of books by Sabrina Jeffries, and I certainly plan to read the others in the series on the strength of this one.

Lisette Bonnaud and her brother Tristan are the illegitimate children of Viscount Rathmore and his French-born mistress, a former actress, who lives with her children in Yorkshire. When their father dies, leaving them nothing, the new viscount, George, who has long hated his father’s “other” family, wastes no time in evicting them from their home; but not before Tristan, young and hot-headed, has stolen George’s favourite horse and sold it in order to provide some immediate funds to support his family.

Fortunately for Tristan and Lisette, their other half-brother, Dominic Manton, has always been their friend, and he helps Tristan to leave the country, knowing that George will take great pleasure in having him arrested and hanged for thievery. (Horse stealing was a hanging offence at the time the story is set).

Several years later, we meet Dominic and Lisette in London. Estranged from his brother because of his defence of his half-siblings, Dom has to make his own way in the world and is running a successful investigation agency. He is about to depart London to work on a case in Edinburgh, leaving Lisette to run the office.

Not long after he has left, Lisette receives an unexpected visitor in the form of Maximilian Cale, the Duke of Lyons. He tells her that he has received a communication from Tristan regarding an old family tragedy – the kidnap and subsequent death of his elder brother – and is insistent that Lisette tells him immediately where he can find Tristan.

Lisette is astonished at Lyons’ request. She had no idea Tristan was in England as he still has a warrant out for his arrest and Lyons’ suspicious, dismissive manner immediately gets her hackles rising.

“Forgive me, madam, it appears that you and I got off on the wrong foot.”

“You got off on the wrong foot. I merely watched you shove it into your mouth.”

The air fairly crackles with antagonism until Lyons realises that trying to bully answers out of the young Frenchwoman will get him nowhere and decides to confide a little of his situation to Lisette.

What follows is an enjoyable mystery story in which Max and Lisette travel to France to find Tristan. For the sake of propriety, Lisette suggests they travel as plain Mister Cale and his sister until a chance encounter with a neighbour puts paid to that idea and they are instead forced to travel as a married couple. I confess to the fact that the “pretend couple” is a favourite trope of mine, and I thought this one was handled very well.

The advantage of a road-trip story is that it gives the listener time to get to know both principals, and allows the attraction between them to develop at a realistic pace. But while Max is upfront with Lisette from the outset, she is more reticent and although she is not untruthful, she lies by omission at times; and he finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that he knows she is holding something back with his growing affection for her.

Both of them are also carrying a couple of cases of emotional baggage as well. Lisette doesn’t want to end up like her mother – with a couple of children and no means of support and disappointed in the man she loves, and Max is living daily with the prospect that he may someday succumb to the madness that killed both his father and his uncle. I have to say that I was grateful for the way the author dealt with Max’s fears in a manner that eschewed melodrama or turning him into a clichéd “tortured hero”. He knows what he could be facing and has allowed that fear to dictate the way he lives his life, staying aloof and building walls around his heart. But we are allowed frequent glimpses of the man beneath, one who craves love and companionship and who has much to give in return. The scene where Max breaks down because he is unable to sit helplessly by the bedside of his dying cousin is truly heart-wrenching.

Max and Lisette are both very sympathetic characters and it is easy to understand their mutual attraction. They counterbalance each other – Lisette’s humanity often softens Max’s haughtiness, his intelligence complements her intuition and both are fiercely loyal to those they love. I particularly enjoyed the way Ms Jeffries explored just what it meant to be a duke in the society of the time. When dukes are such a staple of much romantic fiction, it is easy to forget just how powerful these men were. Despite their proliferation in novels, there are actually not that many of them (about twenty or so) and many of them today are members of the Royal Family. So when Max has to travel without the advantages of his title, he really feels the lack to begin with – until he realises that it is actually rather freeing to be simple “Mister” Cale. And conversely, in the later stage of the book, when Max “reassumes” his title, it is fascinating to see just how much power he wields.

The only thing that prevented me from giving this story an A grade is that it feels as though rather too much plot was crammed into the last quarter of the story. I liked the fact that quite a lot of time was devoted to Max and Lisette’s journey and to building the relationship between them, but that probably meant less time for the dénouement.

Overall, the book boasts an interesting plot and two very attractive protagonists. The writing is excellent, the romance is well-developed and there is plenty of humour and intrigue. I’m really looking forward to reading more about The Duke’s Men.

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