Investigator Tristan Bonnaud has one aim in life— to make sure that his half-brother George can’t ever ruin his life again. So when the pesky Lady Zoe Keane, the daughter of the Earl of Olivier, shows up demanding that the Duke’s Men find a mysterious gypsy woman, he seizes the opportunity to also hunt for a gypsy friend who knows secrets about George. Tristan doesn’t expect to uncover Lady Zoe’s family secrets, as well… or end up falling for the woman who will risk all to discover the truth.
This is the third book in Ms. Jeffries’ current series, The Duke’s Men, the name which is loosely applied to Manton Investigations, the firm built and run by Dominic Manton and his half-brother, Tristan Bonnaud.
Towards the end of the previous book, When the Rogue Returns, Dom and Tristan were working an investigation involving a theft and kidnapping when they were literally stumbled upon by the spirited Lady Zoe Keane. In return for keeping quiet and beating a hasty retreat, Zoe secured Dom’s promise that she could call in a favour sometime – and at the beginning of this book, that time has come.
Zoe is a rather unusual heiress. The only child of the Earl of Olivier, she is one of the few women in England who is able to inherit her father’s title and property and she will therefore be a Countess in her own right. But that is part of the problem and the reason she needs the help of Manton Investigations. For Zoe’s aunt has let slip that she isn’t actually the daughter of the earl and his late wife, but the daughter of a gypsy woman who sold her baby to the childless couple – and Zoe needs to know the truth. If what her aunt has said is untrue, then nothing needs to change, but if it is true, then she needs to find out, and, just as importantly find out who else knows about it. Matters are complicated by the fact that her cousin – who is next in line for the title after Zoe – is shortly to arrive from America, and it may be necessary for Zoe to marry him just to make things that extra bit watertight.
Tristan is a charming scoundrel who has, in the manner of many a hero of historical romance, sworn off love because of the misery it ultimately caused his mother. But he cares deeply for those few who are close to him, and would do anything for them. He is not fond of the aristocracy given the treatment meted out to him and his family at the hands of his half-brother George and his own father’s irresponsibility, which accounts for his cynicism over Zoe’s concern for her estate, making it clear he believes her to be interested only in monetary gain rather than in her responsibilities towards her tenants and estate workers.
Tristan senses Zoe doesn’t like him, and takes great delight in needling her. Panicked by the almost overwhelming feelings of attraction she is experiencing toward him, Zoe decides she absolutely does not want Tristan involved in her case. But he grew up around Romany gypsies, is familiar with their customs and can speak their language, so he is ideally placed to get the information Zoe needs. The fact that it will enable Tristan to secretly pursue an inquiry of his own is an added attraction. For years, he’s wanted revenge against his half-brother George for robbing him of his inheritance and having his mother and sister evicted from their home on the Rathmoor estate. Tristan is searching for a Romany named Milosh, who he believes has information about George which will help Tristan in his quest for vengeance, so visiting Romany camps in order to gain information about Zoe’s situation presents him with the perfect opportunity to do a little investigating of his own.
There’s plenty of chemistry between the two leads, and they’re practically unable to keep their hands off each other from the get-go, which means that the romance feels a little underdeveloped in the early stages of the book. Tristan has made a point of never dallying with “ladies”, preferring instead to seek his pleasures with women who know what the score. But Zoe is proving the exception – he knows he shouldn’t want her, but he does, even to the point of considering marriage for the first time in his life.
I enjoyed the story, and zipped through it in a couple of sessions, but even though the writing is good and the principals are engaging, that isn’t enough to disguise the fact that the story depends on a massive contrivance for it to progress beyond a certain point. (This is an issue I also had with the previous book in the series). I found the constant hints dropped by the author about Zoe’s possible origins through her love of “dash” – her preferences for unusual and bright colour combinations, for example – to be a bit heavy-handed. And I really disliked the part where Lisette (Tristan’s sister, the Duchess of Lyons, who was the heroine in the first book, What the Duke Desires) basically spills the beans on Tristan’s past to Zoe, telling her things he had specifically not wanted to talk to her about himself. Now, I know there are times in a novel when a character perhaps needs a bit of a nudge or pointer, but this feels overly intrusive, given that Tristan clearly isn’t ready to divulge that information. In fact, it has the flavour of an info-dump as Lisette fills Zoe in on what happened to them after their father’s death, and how hard Tristan had had to work in order to support his family. I have no problem when a roguish character is revealed to have a heart of gold beating inside his splendidly muscled chest, but the heroine should discover those laudable things about the hero for herself, or hear about them from him. To simply have the hero’s sister tell the heroine what an admirable man her brother is, diminishes its impact and means there’s nothing left for the heroine to find out on her own. She can now go the hero completely sure that he’s an honourable man and a safe repository for her heart, and once she’s convinced of that, we might as well all pack up and go home.
Incidentally, I find it difficult to believe that Ms Jeffries wrote those lines where Tristan describes his male appendage as a “beast” with a straight face. Because I certainly didn’t have one when I read it!
On a more positive note – one of the things Ms Jeffries does very well in the book is to incorporate and explain many Romany customs and beliefs, which is both informative and interesting. I also liked the emphasis placed on Zoe’s dedication to the land and her fierce determination to make sure that she would be able to ensure the security of her dependants, and what we saw of her relationship with her stern, but obviously loving, father.
I’m giving How the Scoundrel Seduces a very qualified recommendation, because in spite of my criticisms, it does have things to recommend it, namely the writing, the well-researched background and the fact that it finally resolves the plotline revolving around Tristan and George. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first introduction to The Duke’s Men but if you’re following the series, as I am, then it’s a decent addition to the series.