Princess Luisa has devoted her life to duty, quietly preparing to succeed her father as ruler. Nothing, however, primed her to live on the run, disguised as a personal secretary to a notorious English scoundrel. The earl is just the man to help her reclaim her throne, but Luisa is drawn to her powerful employer in ways she never imagined…
Philip, Earl of Somerton, has spent six years married to a woman in love with another man — he refuses to become a fool due to imprudent emotions ever again. Only, as his carefully laid plans for vengeance falter, fate hands him hope for redemption in the form of a beautiful and determined young princess who draws him into a risky game of secrets, seduction, and betrayal. And while his cunning may be enough to save her life, nothing can save him from losing his heart…
This is the third and final book in Ms Gray’s A Princess in Hiding trilogy, and tells the story of the eldest of the three sisters, Luisa, the Crown Princess of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof, who, following the assassination of her father and young husband, had briefly been ruler of the small principality until forced to flee to England with her sisters. There, their uncle, the Duke of Olympia comes up with a plan to separate them and send them into hiding disguised as young men, until such time as he can find out who is behind the revolution and put in train steps to return Luisa to the throne. Olympia, the master manipulator, places each of the sisters in very specific and far from random situations, which turn out to be with men who are more than up to the task of protecting them and looking out for their best interests. The middle sister Emile How to Tame Your Duke) goes to work for the imposing Duke of Ashland, a man known for his military prowess; and the youngest, Stefanie (How to Master Your Marquis) is placed in a situation which throws her much into the company of the gorgeous Marquess of Hatherfield, an intelligent, resourceful young man who has worked as a government agent. Ashland and Hatherfield are honourable, reliable men, whereas Luisa is to be entrusted to the care of a man both hated and feared by society – the ruthless, brutal and black-hearted Earl of Somerton.
As is the case with her previous Affairs by Moonlight series, the events in these three books take place more or less concurrently, so the reader gets brief glimpses of events which have taken place in the other books. Not only that, but Ms Grey has woven one of the threads from her earlier trilogy into this one, by virtue of the fact that the Somerton is very much the villain of the piece in A Gentleman Never Tells.
And all six books are linked by the background machinations of the seemingly omniscient Duke of Olympia, uncle to the princesses and manipulator extraordinaire.
I confess to having a weakness for brooding, tortured and flawed heroes with a murky past, and Leopold, Earl of Somerton (why does it say his name is Philip in the blurb? His son is Philip, and the couple of times his first name is used in the story, it’s Leopold) fits that bill to a T. With so many books boasting wicked, rakish and scandalous heroes, it’s quite refreshing to come across one who is actually all of those things and then some! Somerton is highly intelligent, implacable, ruthless and completely unscrupulous, a man with blood on his hands (albeit for the right cause) who is well aware of his murky reputation and doesn’t hesitate to use it to his advantage. He’s not well liked, is feared rather than respected, and doesn’t give a damn for anyone else’s opinion. Who better, therefore, to help a deposed princess to regain her throne and her kingdom? It’s going to take cojones of steel, and Somerton’s the man for the job – which is exactly why Olympia places Luisa in his household, effectively guaranteeing her his protection.
At the beginning of the book, young Mr Markham shows up to apply for a position as Somerton’s personal secretary. The earl is a physically imposing and intimidating man, used to getting his own way and to servants who cower in his presence – but Luisa is a princess, brought up to rule, and she stands her ground, even turning the tables on him at one point, which of course, he admires and likes, although he’d never admit it.
Luisa is carrying a large weight of responsibility – concern for her homeland, her subjects and her fear for the lives of her sisters. She wants to take back her principality and she is frustrated at having to wait for Olympia’s strategies to play out. But she has no other choice, and settles to her role as Somerton’s right hand “man”.
One may wonder that Somerton doesn’t see through Luisa’s disguise, given his perspicacity and his job as one of the government’s most powerful officials. There are plenty of clues there – as when Ms Gray mentions the fact that Mr Markham never knocks before entering a room, or when the earl ponders the air of authority that seems to surround the young man; but I can only attribute his obliviousness to the fact that he’s preoccupied with both his government duties and his desire to prove his wife’s infidelity.
The months pass, and they strike up an odd sort of master/servant relationship – Mr Markham is frequently cheeky to his employer, and Somerton puts up with it. Markham is efficient, straightforward and trustworthy – and his trust is something Somerton does not give lightly or often. He is at a loss to explain the reasons for his strange and very unusual inclination to confide in the young man – but there’s an underlying sense that Somerton is beginning to feel something akin to friendship for Markham, which is clearly something he’s not used to experiencing.
Somerton is married, but anyone who has read A Gentleman Never Tells will know that the marriage is not happy and that his wife has been in love with another man for many years.
As is the case with a large number of the heroes in historical romance, Somerton grew up without any love or affection, and as an adult has no idea how to show either. At first sight of Elizabeth Harwood seven years previously, he fell head-over-heels in love with her, but having no idea how to court or win her, he did the only thing he felt comfortable with: he offered her impecunious father a large sum of money for her hand. Elizabeth was already in love with Lord Roland Penhallow, but had no choice in the matter and married Somerton. Here, we learn that she never really gave him a chance, submitting to the physical side of their marriage without complaint but making it perfectly clear she hated both it, and him for making her enjoy it.
Somerton is angry and frustrated – at himself as well as his wife – and is now fairly obsessed with the desire to find evidence of her infidelity, and to exact his revenge on her lover, Penhallow. Getting to see Somerton’s side of the story here enables the reader to start to feel some sympathy for him, as in the earlier book, he was very much the villain who was cruel to his wife and was trying to take their son away from her. Here we see the flip-side and learn how Elizabeth’s outright rejection, indifference and scorn have also contributed to the miserable state of their marriage.
In a brief note, Ms Gray talks about the scene in the book she felt was key in helping her to understand Somerton’s character, and I certainly found it to be rather moving. It takes place late one night when, after more than six years, he finally accepts that Elizabeth never loved him and never will – retreats to his study with the brandy bottle and his cello. For one thing – a musical hero is pretty much guaranteed to turn me to mush (and the cello is my favourite stringed instrument) – for another the way he reacts to Luisa’s expression of her simple wish for him to be happy brought a lump to my throat. This huge, powerful man has never known much – if any – affection and the thought that someone could actually give a damn about him knocks him completely off balance.
(Another plus – the inspiration for that moment came from Verdi’s Don Carlo. I love all these musical connections!)
Having finally admitted to himself that his marriage is over, Somerton decides to offer Elizabeth a divorce, although that isn’t enough to quell his desire for revenge on Penhallow. But circumstances prevent his carrying through with his plans; an attempt is made on Luisa’s life, and it finally becomes necessary for her to come clean with Somerton and ask for his help.
There’s a lot of complexity in the story, in terms of the double-dealing and double-double-crossing going on in the plots against the princesses. Ms Gray cleverly throws out hints in the previous books as to the identities of the people responsible for the assassinations and subsequent revolution in Holstein-Schweinwald-Hunhof, but there was always an ambiguity there, so that I was never quite sure as to whether they really WERE the bad guys or whether they were good guys having to take difficult decisions and drastic measures.
There is a lot of humour in the book, too. I especially enjoyed the way Somerton and Olympia snipe at each other; and the final section, where both Hatherfield (now the Duke of Southam) and Ashland show up to help save the day smacked a bit of a Boy’s Own Adventure – but the highlight has to be the six-foot-three, highly distinguished Duke of Olympia getting togged up in drag so that he can keep tabs on Luisa in the guise of Mr Markham’s aunt, Mrs Duke.
I enjoy Ms Gray’s writing style, which is both intelligent and lyrical, and she can certainly turn up the heat – emotional and sexual – when called for. The romantic tension between Luisa and Somerton simmers almost palpably, and while they don’t kiss until well into the story (for obvious reasons) it’s certainly worth the wait when it finally happens. The sex scenes are well-done, too; Ms Gray injects them with an earthy sensuality that feels just a little different to so many of the other historicals out there nowadays, and let’s face it, fictional bad boys are always uber-hotties between the sheets. Or against walls, over desks, on tables… and Somerton is most definitely no exception to that rule 😉
If I have a criticism, it’s a fairly small one. Because the story takes place over around a year, there are some jumps along the timeline which are the teeniest bit jarring – but that’s pretty much all I can find to nitpick, because for the most part, the novel is very well-paced.
I’m not a fan of epilogues in which the fecundity of all the characters in the series is on display – I find it terribly twee and most times I skip them when I can. But I have to applaud Ms Gray for the inclusion of a very tongue-in-cheek Babylogue, told from Olympia’s PoV, whose pronouncements are by turns sweet, funny and insightful.
Confession time: this is a series of books I never originally intended to read. When I first saw the synopsis for How to Tame Your Duke, I didn’t think it would be for me because “Chicks in strides” is one of my least favourite tropes in the genre, and I had plenty of other books on my TBR pile to be getting on with. But a favourable review by one of my AAR colleagues made me request a review copy of the audiobook version (which I reviewed for AudioGals), and I was impressed enough with the story to want to read the next book. When I learned that this final one would see Ms Gray attempting to make a hero of Somerton, well, there was no way I wasn’t going to read it and I think it’s my favourite book of the three. The author has done a wonderful job in turning the seemingly black-hearted earl into a romantic hero, although he remains his irascible self throughout.
I’ve said this before, I know, but it says much for Ms Gray’s storytelling abilities that she’s kept me hooked despite my dislike of the trope. She’s going onto my auto-buy list.