Sensible and lonely, Olivia Mather survives by her wits—and her strict policy of avoiding trouble. But when she realizes that the Duke of Marwick might hold the secrets of her family’s past, she does the unthinkable, infiltrating his household as a maid. She’ll clean his study and rifle through his papers looking for information.
Alastair de Grey has a single reason to live: vengeance. More beautiful than Lucifer, twice as feared, and thrice as cunning, he’ll use any weapon to punish those who fooled and betrayed him—even an impertinent maid who doesn’t know her place. But the more fascinated he becomes with the uppity redhead, the more dangerous his carefully designed plot becomes. For the one contingency he forgot to plan for was falling in love…and he cannot survive being fooled again
Alastair de Grey, Duke of Marwick was one of the most important political masterminds in the country, a man tipped as a potential prime minister, as well one whose power and connections behind the schemes earned him the moniker of “kingmaker”.
Following the sudden death of his wife, Margaret, Alastair discovered that what he had considered to be the perfect marriage was nothing but a sham. His wife was not only regularly unfaithful to him, but the men she chose to betray him with were his political enemies men, to whom she would divulge his plans and political secrets. From the letters that emerged after her death, not only was she actively conspiring against him, she and her lovers were laughing at him behind his back.
The manner of her death – from an overdose of opium – and his discovery of her treachery sent Alastair into a downward spiral. At the beginning of the previous book in the series,(That Scandalous Summer) he was arguing with his brother Michael, over the fact that Alastair, wanting nothing more to do with marriage, was demanding his brother marry and get to work producing an heir without delay. That argument led to a rift between them, and to Alastair’s committing a number of spiteful, vengeful acts (such as closing down the hospital he funded), which certainly painted him in a most appalling light.
The overwhelming rage he feels at the actions of his wife and her lovers, and at himself for allowing himself to be duped; his self-pitying frustration and the constant temptations to violence he feels have turned him into a recluse. He doesn’t leave his rooms, he barely eats and takes no interest in anything at all. His servants are terrified of going near him because of the threat of violence and as a result are running wild in the house with nobody to care what becomes of either house or master.
Olivia Mather – now going by the name of Olivia Johnson – appeared in That Scandalous Summer as companion and secretary to the heroine, Elizabeth Chudderly, who is now married to Michael de Grey. It was clear throughout that book that Olivia had something to hide, and at the end, she left Elizabeth’s employ, having stolen some letters that had been written by the late Duchess of Marwick. She plans to enter the duke’s house in order to steal information from him relating to Lord Bertram, a political associate of Alastair’s, and the man who threatens her very existence. Once in possession of what she believes to be damning evidence that could ruin him, Olivia plans to blackmail Bertram into leaving her alone.
Olivia presents herself at the house as an applicant – the sole applicant – for the position of housemaid, only to find herself offered the job of temporary housekeeper. She doesn’t want that, but circumstances conspire to force her hand, and she accepts the post.
What follows is a delicious slow-burn of a story in which Alastair is gradually coaxed back into the world of the living by OIivia, who stands up to him, regularly disobeys his orders, answers him back and, most importantly, tells him the truth and refuses to allow him to wallow in self-pity when he has so much to offer. Marwick insists he’s not a good man – and it’s true that he’s not your run-of-the-mill romantic hero. He’s rude, arrogant and downright unpleasant, but there’s an incredible intensity about him that is immediately captivating and attractive, in spite of the nasty side of him we see initially. He can’t let go of his rage, but the reason he won’t leave his rooms or the house is not the expected one – he won’t go out because he’s afraid that if he does, he’ll kill someone.
By degrees, Olivia re-humanises him, and along the way the reclusive duke and his no-nonsense housekeeper indulge in a number of completely inappropriate (given their relative statuses) conversations in which they argue and bicker constantly. Marwick sacks Olivia several times, but she always ignores him. (At this point, I had to wonder if Ms Duran is a West Wing fan – fellow fans will no doubt recall that in the early days, Josh Lyman was forever firing his devoted assistant, Donna – who was delightfully “impervious” and never listened to him, either).
“Ah, a tale of revenge. Are you seeking inspiration?”
He gave her a rather threatening smile. “So far, our hero seems spineless.”
“You must be in the early section, then. I assure you, after Dantes spends years and years locked away, growing into a ragamuffin, he emerges quite deadly. Why, the first thing he does is to cut his hair.”
He slammed shut the book. “You are peculiarly deaf to the cues most servants know to listen for. Was there some purpose to your visit? If not, you are dismissed.”
She held up the mirror again. “Here is my purpose: you look like a wildebeest. If your valet—”
“I don’t believe you know what a wildebeest looks like,” he said mildly.
Hesitantly she lowered the mirror. He was right; she hadn’t the faintest idea what a wildebeest looked like. “Well, you look how a wildebeest sounds like it should look.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.” He opened his book again. “ ‘Sheepdog’ was the better choice.”
As the story develops and as Olivia discovers more about her employer – about his intellect, his altruism and real commitment to good governance – as well as getting to know him as a person (they have a lovely conversation about books which reveals much about them as individuals and shows why they belong together) – the harder she finds it to go through with her plans to deceive him and steal the information she needs. But she is getting desperate, and with time running out, she has to take her chances which, unfortunately, don’t go to plan.
The pace speeds up once Alastair discovers Olivia’s duplicity, and revelations and plot developments come thick and fast. But through it all, there are these two, wounded people who share a deep emotional connection and who need each other very much. It’s a mark of how far he has travelled that Alastair is able to forgive Olivia for her betrayal, and there is a crucial and wonderful moment in which he finally realise the selfishness and weakness of his actions in closeting himself away with his thoughts of revenge. When he learns Olivia’s true identity and her reasons for concealing it, he is floored to think that this young woman – who has no family or friends, no-one to care for her, look after her or fight her battles against someone who would do her harm – has been fighting against the darkness since she was sixteen years old. His way of dealing with betrayal was to retreat into himself. He had that luxury. Olivia, alone and friendless – and a woman – had no alternative but to fight.
The romance is beautifully written, and Ms Duran takes her time with it, building the sexual tension gradually but potently, giving even the slightest touch a real emotional and sensual punch:
For no apparent reason, she suddenly recalled the feel of his hands on her wrists. His thumbs slipping across her pulse. Her stomach somersaulted.
[. . . ]
As she gathered up his locks, her fingers brushed along the base of his neck. His shoulders were solid muscle—even here, at their tops. She could feel them flex a little beneath her fingertips, and the sensation made her redden.
She shifted her hand up, to avoid that muscled bulk. But now her knuckles skated along the nape of his neck, and his bare skin was startlingly warm, very smooth. Three snips bared his nape—and she found herself staring, somehow startled by it: the whole strong shape of his neck, thick and muscled, corded as he bent forward to allow her better access.
His spine made a hard knob of bone at the base of his neck. In public, his collar would always hide this nexus of muscle and bone, even when his hair did not. It was a secret, intimate, vulnerable place. How many eyes had beheld it? His valet . . . and his late wife. Perhaps she had kissed it. It seemed like a spot one would enjoy kissing, were one his lover.
I think that might win the prize for the sexiest hair-cut ever 😛
The characterisation is excellent all-round, but both Alastair and Olivia are among the most strongly written characters I’ve encountered in a while. Olivia is stubborn, sensible and independent, determined to do what she must alone, as always – yet she can’t help but be intrigued by and drawn to Alastair, who has become so convinced of his unworthiness and of the world’s darkness that he at first, thinks to drag her down with him. She sees that he’s not as devoid of hope as he wants to believe, and he finds it impossible to resist her challenges and her blandishments, so that eventually he wants to haul himself out of the pit he’s been digging for himself. I said before that he’s an unusual romantic hero because of the fact he’s so bloody unpleasant to start with, but, unlike so many heroes who have tortured pasts, or terrible experiences, who merely curl their lips and look down their noses at people, Alastair behaves in a way that makes complete sense. He’s an out-and-out pain in the arse whose position as a duke gives him the power and the right to do as he wants with and to whom he wants without a qualm. He’s nasty, he’s rude, he’s insulting, yet his behaviour, following the shattering of his life and his illusions about his marriage, is that of a wounded animal – creeping away to lick its wounds it will also lash out at anything that threatens it. And that, for me, is Alastair at the beginning of the book.
It’s a mark of how good a writer Ms Duran is that she can make the reader care about him, even when he’s behaving like a total bastard. And when he finally emerges from his bastard-dom, he’s true hero material; the intensity he exhibited when in his “beast” phase never really goes away, and serves to make him even more compelling.
My one complaint about the book is that the ending feels a bit rushed, but that’s a minor point because I loved it and was gripped from beginning to end.