As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.
And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.
Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?
No, no, and… Heh.
Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?
Tessa Dare has once again delivered a truly charming, sexy and humorous romance with her latest title, Romancing the Duke. I admit there were a couple of points which bothered me a little, but they didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment and I really can’t fault Ms Dare’s writing or characterisation.
Isolde Ophelia Goodnight is twenty-six, plain, homeless and practically penniless. Her father, a well-known author of childrens’ stories, died recently, and was too concerned with his writing and the resultant public adulation to give a thought to making sure the daughter who had devoted her life to his comfort was provided for. Consequently, all his money and property has passed to Izzy’s cousin – who dislikes her intensely – and she has been left with nothing. Until one day, when a letter arrives telling her she has received a bequest in her godfather’s will.
Hoping for a few hundred pounds, Izzy travels north to meet with Lord Archer – who is executor of the late Lord Lynforth’s will – at Gostley Castle in Northumberland. Before he arrives, however, Izzy encounters a dishevelled, taciturn yet incredibly handsome man – and promptly swoons at his feet.
Izzy has barely eaten for the last couple of days and has expended almost all the money she had on travelling to the castle. When she revives, the man from the courtyard informs her that he is Ransom Vane, Duke of Rothbury and that the castle is his home.
Lord Archer arrives and tells Izzy that the castle is now, in fact, hers – and both she and Ransom are aghast. Ransom is adamant that he never sold the property to Lynforth and Izzy had hoped for money to enable her to support herself, rather than a huge, dilapidated, bat-and-rat-infested castle in the north of England. Ransom wants Izzy to leave – but she has nowhere else to go and having made “making the best of things” into an art form over the course of her life, Izzy puts her best face on and her best foot forward and informs Ransom she’s staying and that she intends to start putting the place to rights.
“I’ve always tried to make the best of what life gave me. When I was a girl, I longed for a kitten. Instead, I got a weasel. Not the pet I wanted by I’ve done my best to love Snowdrop just the same… Since my father died, I’ve been desperate for a place to call home. The humblest cottage would do. Instead, I’ve inherited a haunted, infested castle in Nowhere, Northumberland. Not the home I wanted, but I’m determined to make it a home.”
But the duke isn’t about to let this unknown woman just walk into and take-over his home without knowing what the hell is going on, and he certainly doesn’t plan on going anywhere himself. Following an incident seven months previous which has deprived him of his sight, Ransom has holed up at Gostley fully intent on licking his wounds, turning brooding into an Olympic sport and having the biggest, longest pity-party in history. Although in this case, misery definitely does NOT want company. Ransom tries everything he can think of to get rid of Izzy. He’s rude. He takes her around the castle to show her just what a wreck the place is to discourage her. He inadvertently manages to get a baby bat trapped in her hair. He tries to scare her off by kissing her senseless and showing her that he’s a threat to her virtue – but none of it works.
Izzy stays and starts gradually to make improvements to the castle as well as acting as Ransom’s secretary. He can no longer read any of the mountains of correspondence burying his desk and the only way they are going to discover the truth about the ownership of the castle is to go through it all in the hope of finding the details of the transaction. As wade their way gradually through all the letters, it emerges that someone has been misappropriating funds from Ransom’s accounts and mismanaging his affairs; and it’s almost certain that same someone is responsible for the fraudulent sale of Gostley.
While this is going on, the relationship between Izzy and Ransom is gaining momentum. Right from the start, he’s attracted to her, to her honesty and spirit; and – not least – to the feel of her body and the scent of her skin. But to begin with, he’s too intent on self-pity to allow himself to admit that it’s anything more than the simple lust of a man who hasn’t been with a woman in months. As we come to know more of him, we discover that Ransom had a loveless childhood (as so many heroes in historical romance seem to do!) and that, as an adult, he made a career of pushing people away and alienating them, so that even when he was in possession of all his physical senses, he was never well-liked or popular – despite his being inordinately handsome and very rich.
And now he feels he has nothing to offer. He’s blind, scarred, even more of a misery-guts than he was before, and the last thing he wants is to feel pitied by some waspish, over-optimistic spinster.
I really liked Izzy. She’s straightforward and pragmatic, says what she means (for the most part), and tackles the challenges before her head-on and without pausing to let the enormity of them grind her down. She hasn’t had the easiest of lives, but because of her situation, has never been able to express her frustrations to anyone. Her father’s stories are so beloved that she is thought to have had the perfect life with the perfect parent, and she herself has become an object of devotion as a result. Everyone who meets her or hears about her thinks of her as “little Izzy Goodnight”, the loving daughter to whom the Goodnight Tales were told and then written. Ransom realises straight away that this is a source of great irritation for Izzy, who is tired of having other people’s impressions of her personality imposed upon her. Yet because she is reluctant to hurt anyone’s feelings, she allows it to continue and gamely plays the role of the fairytale princess.
Ms. Dare is justly renowned for her ability to write sharp, witty banter, and she has penned some terrific exchanges between Ransom and Izzy. In addition, both protagonists are very well-drawn, engaging characters who clearly need each other very much. Not because Ransom is blind and needs Izzy’s eyes, or because Izzy is destitute and needs his money, but because Ransom is the first man to actually see Izzy for what she is – a woman with a true and loving heart and a lot to offer to any man. In her mind she’s plain, but Ransom, who can’t see her face but who knows the feel and scent of her, the sound of her husky voice, knows that on the inside, she’s a beautiful temptress.
And Izzy is able to break through the protective barriers Ransom has constructed around himself, to begin to restore his faith in himself and in human nature; and to show him that he ,is worthy of love.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Romancing the Duke even though there were a couple of things that niggled at me. Firstly, there was the fact that Izzy spent several nights under Ransom’s roof without a chaperone. I know she had little alternative, but it took quite a while for Izzy to come up with the idea of having another female stay there with her. And then there was the fact that we never really got to the bottom of who had been stealing from Ransom. My biggest issue, however, was with the ending, which was too silly for my taste.
But when I enjoy other aspects of a book – such as the characterisation and dialogue – as much as I did with this one, I tend to be a little more lenient about such things. The rest of the story is warm and funny, the romance is charming and sexy and there are some moments of very sharp insight, such as this one, from early in the novel:
“This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”
“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”
I also loved Ms Dare’s affectionate poke at fandom, her sly nod towards the gothic novel, and – I have to give her bonus points – the Star Wars reference.
In short, Romancing the Duke is a terrific, feel-good romantic tale and I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series.