The Heart of a Duke by Victoria Morgan

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Lady Julia Chandler fears she will be walking down the aisle with a silver-tipped cane if she waits for the Duke of Bedford to seal their engagement. Seeking to quicken his pace, she decides to find her duke, kiss him senseless, and post the wedding banns. It is a good plan, until she mistakes her fiancé’s long-absent twin for her duke.

Ten years ago, Lord Daniel Bryant sailed to America to find his fortune and flee his cruel brother who inherited the family title. A cryptic note draws him back to England: Come home and claim your destiny. Before seeking anything, Daniel must first determine who set the fire that nearly took his life and precipitated his flight abroad. Now with the taste of Lady Julia warm on his lips, the stakes are raised higher than before as he seeks to claim both his destiny and the lady of his heart.

Rating: B+

This is Ms Morgan’s second novel, following her superb début in 2012 with For the Love of a Soldier which I enjoyed very much and raved about to anyone who would listen!

The Heart of a Duke is not related to the previous book and has a different feel overall, being much lighter on the history and concentrating more on the romance and the mystery. But it is equally as well-written, the central characters are just as engaging and well-rounded, and the romance is delightful.

Lady Julia Chandler has been engaged to Edmund Bryant, Duke of Bedford, for five years and is beginning to despair of ever making it to the altar – and I can’t say as I blame her! Bedford is rarely in residence at his nearby estate, preferring instead to spend the bulk of his time in London, so Julia hardly sees him. He’s very handsome, dashing and charming and she’s convinced she’s in love, but he’s never given her any clue as to his feelings. He’s never even kissed her in fact – and, on hearing that he’s returned to the vicinity, she determines to grab the bull by the horns, confront him and plant one on him to try to galvanize him into action as regards their marriage.

Throwing herself at him certainly does provoke a reaction, which would have been all to the purpose had the gentleman on the receiving end been the duke and not his twin brother, Lord Daniel Bryant. Daniel has spent the past ten years in America, having left England after his home had burned to the ground, almost killing him in the process. There were other reasons behind his decision to leave, too, reasons of which we are gradually made aware and which certainly bode ill for Daniel’s safety. He has long suspected that the fire at Lakewood Manor was no accident and that, combined with a number of smaller incidents dating back to his childhood, led him to believe the only way to escape these threats to his life was to leave the country.

The two brothers and Julia used to play together as children. Daniel was always the smaller of the twins and thus often the butt of his brother’s crueller jokes and his ire. Edmund always disliked his brother, never missing an opportunity to make life difficult or cause him injury, but as the heir to one of the most influential dukedoms in the country, most people seemed content to turn a blind eye. Only one person – Julia’s mother – voiced any concern as to the number of times Daniel appeared bruised or bloodied, but there was a prevailing opinion on the part of the men that the smaller boy needed to be toughened up.

Outwardly, Daniel is very like his brother – tall, dark and extremely handsome – but on the inside he is the complete opposite. Edmund disdains the land and sees his estates and workers as things to be exploited in order to enable him to live in the style to which he has been accustomed, whereas Daniel has a true feeling for his heritage and is appalled to discover that Edmund has been systematically running the estate into the ground. Daniel is innately considerate, where Edmund only shows kindness when he thinks it will get him what he wants – and Daniel wants Julia for herself while Edmund just wants a brood-mare with a large dowry that he can leave to rusticate while he continues to maintain his mistresses and to live the high life in London.

Julia at first refuses to admit an attraction to her fiancé’s brother. She loves Edmund – or so she believes – and when he finally arrives in Kent to host a large party, she is overjoyed and relieved to see him, believing she has found Daniel and his kisses so intoxicating because of his similarity to his brother.

When Daniel discovers that his rooms at the local inn have been searched, he realizes that Edmund is looking for something – but he doesn’t know what. Following a further search and another attempt on his life, Daniel knows he has to discover exactly why Edmund hates him so much, or he will be forever looking over his shoulder wondering when the next assassin will find him.

It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I finally hit upon the reasons behind Edmund’s hatred – but I freely admit to being someone who is not especially good at working out “whodunit”! That said, however, once I’d worked it out, I was able to remember all the little clues the author had planted throughout the rest of the book, nod my head wisely and say “oh, of course!” to myself – so I found the mystery element to be well thought-out and well-executed.

This strand of the story, although present throughout, comes to the fore in the second half, while the first concentrates more on the development of the relationship between Daniel and Julia. The fact that they knew each other as children means that things initially proceed quite quickly between them. There is no need for introductions, or to find ways for Daniel to be accepted into Julia’s home, and no eyebrows are raised at the idea of their riding around Bedford’s estate together to make an assessment of its problems and needs.

Both are engaging characters who share a sense of humor and a deep love for their land and homes. Julia has suffered her share of tragedy, having lost her mother fairly recently, and because of her father’s immersion in his own grief, she shouldered much of the burden of running the Taunton estate. Following hard on the heels of her mother’s death, her younger sister Emily discovered that her fiancé had been killed in India, a loss which drove her almost to the brink of insanity. Julia is therefore the family ‘fixer’, the one everyone else has depended upon – but who had nobody to look out for her. Fortunately, by the time the book begins, her father and sister are much restored, and I really enjoyed the author’s portrayal of a close and loving family unit, something which can be quite rare in the genre.

I thought the star of this particular show was Daniel because he absolutely carried the book. He’s gorgeous: constant, flirtatious, funny and just a little bit naughty – a winning combination as far as I’m concerned! – even though I felt I was being hit over the head rather too frequently with descriptions of his manly beauty and his lovely green eyes.

He’s taken with Julia from the outset and she with him, and because of their history and shared interests, it was easy to believe that they could fall for each other so quickly. I liked that Daniel had the good sense to let Julia reach her own conclusions as to Edmund’s true nature and that he was able to see straight away that she needed someone she could depend on. I was also pleased by the fact that the author didn’t use misunderstandings and secrets between the hero and heroine to create tension in the story. When Julia wants to know exactly what’s going on, Daniel tells her and makes it clear that any reluctance on his part to do so has nothing to do with a lack of trust and everything to do with keeping her safe.

That said, however, I did have a problem when, after Edmund has broken their engagement and ruined her socially as a result, Julia refuses to accept Daniel’s proposal of marriage as a way to mitigate the disaster. That did feel like an overly contrived way of introducing some conflict, and it only served to make me want to smack Julia around a bit. It’s not as if saving her from ruin is Daniel’s only reason for offering for her and she knows it. But having realized that she never loved Edmund, she’s decided that attraction isn’t enough and that she doesn’t want to marry without love. I can accept that – but not that she has no idea of Daniel’s true feelings towards her, even though he hasn’t said those three little words. She’d been prepared to marry a man who obviously didn’t think all that much of her because she saw it as her duty, yet she won’t accept one who is clearly besotted with her, whose overriding concern is to keep her safe, who clearly respects her as a person and never dismisses her opinion; and who is not above romping around the grounds playing with her five-year-old brother.

Color me stupid, but how many more ways could the man have shown her he loved her?

I also thought she was rather unreasonable in her insistence that Daniel allow her to become involved in his increasingly dangerous search for answers by insisting that not doing so would show he didn’t trust her and saying she could never marry a man who didn’t trust her.

She does redeem herself, however, and for the most part, I found her to be refreshingly uncomplicated and pragmatic.

The Heart of a Duke features some engaging secondary characters, most notably Daniel’s friend and sometime minder, Robbie, and his business partner, Brett Curtis. As with Ms Morgan’s previous book, the male friendships were well written and peppered with witty dialogue and affectionate – though manly (!) – teasing. It’s clear that Brett is interested in Julia’s sister, and I hope that will be further explored in a future book, as their story was left rather open-ended.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book although I have to say that I wasn’t as blown away by it as I was by For the Love of a Soldier. But don’t be put off by that, because The Heart of a Duke is an entertaining and well-written romance and I’m looking forward to reading more by this talented author.

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