The Duke of Blackbern and the Marquess Norgrave have always had the wildest of friendships. Best friends growing up, they bask in the pleasures the rich, opulent world that London has to offer, consuming drink and women at their leisure.
But Norgrave has always been a step behind. Blackbern can best him at anything—playing cards, riding horses, and bedding women. So when the stunningly beautiful but innocent Lady Imogen Sunter strays across their path, both men agree a friendly competition for the lady’s affections cannot hurt.
But when Blackbern’s feelings turn into something deeper and Lady Imogen’s desire become clear, Norgrave will do anything to win the wager. Only one man can lay claim to Lady Imogen’s heart… and one shocking act will change them all irrevocably…
At the start, A Duke But No Gentleman seemed as though it was going to venture into darker territory than that which is normally found in the pages of an historical romance. When I finished the book, I came away appreciating the fact that Ms Hawkins has tried to do something a little different, but feeling that it hasn’t quite worked. I’ll give her credit for the fact that her rakes really ARE rakes and are, quite honestly, a rather unpleasant pair, but the story is more about the friendship between two men and how that is affected when one of them falls in love than it is a romance. Because of the prominence of the friendship and rivalry between Blackbern and Norgrave, the love story (such as it is) is pushed into second place, relegated to being the means by which the rivalry is propelled rather than present as a romance for its own sake.
The ungentlemanly duke of the title is Tristan Rooke, Duke of Blackbern who, together with his friend the Marquess of Norgrave, has gained an unrivalled reputation for reckless debauchery. The pair more or less grew up together and have spent most of their lives in a game of one-upmanship. Over the years, their wagers and bets have become more and more risqué, for higher and higher stakes so that by the time they’re in their mid-to-late twenties, there is practically nothing either won’t do in order to best the other. Spotting the lovely Lady Imogene across a crowded ballroom, Norgrave bets Blackbern that he will be the one to relieve the lady of her virginity. What Norgrave doesn’t know is that his friend has already met Imogene and is smitten; Blackbern tries to pretend indifference, but when Norgrave makes it clear that he’s going to pursue the lady whether Blackbern takes the wager or not, Tristan has no option but to play the game.
Lady Imogene Sunter is making her début this season, but is already in hot water with her father, the Duke of Trevett, because she helped a friend of hers to elope with the penniless suitor with whom the friend was in love. I thought that this would have some kind of relevance to the story, perhaps because it would lead Imogene’s parents to be doubly on their guard to make sure she wasn’t the target of unsuitable men – but that wasn’t the case at all, and the event seems to have been referenced only to let the reader know that Imogene is headstrong and unconventional.
While both Blackbern and Norgrave are shown to be disreputable types, it’s clear from the outset who the hero of the story is going to turn out to be. At first, Imogene is rather overwhelmed at the attention she is receiving from two such handsome and wealthy young men, but she soon discovers her preference is for Tristan, and is happy to entertain his courtship, despite his terrible reputation and the advice of her mother, who has naturally warned her against both men – and then does nothing to safeguard her from them.
When Norgrave realises that Tristan has won the wager, but has said nothing because he has actually fallen in love with Imogene, he (Norgrave) is furious and exacts a truly horrible and violent revenge. His intent to wound Tristan through Imogene once again makes the case that this is the story of a twisted friendship gone wrong rather than a romance.
While the book was reasonably entertaining, there are too many problems with it for me to be able to recommend it to anyone else. The biggest issue I have is the fact that Imogene, an eighteen-year-old débutante, is able to go wherever she likes whenever she wants without a chaperone. At one point, Tristan appears at an event at which Imogene is present and then whisks her away without a word being said by anyone. She has no maid or chaperone with her, and there is never any sense of her worrying about being missed. Later, she and Tristan leave a masked ball together and go to his house, where they make love for the first time. Imogene surrenders her virtue remarkably easily – at this point there has been no mention of marriage – and once again, the ease with which they are able to be alone just doesn’t ring true. I kept asking myself how her parents could have been so lax!
Then there’s the insta-love. Imogene and Tristan have spent a bit of time together – much of it alone, which just isn’t plausible – and then BAM!, they’re in love. There is no romantic progression or a sense of their having got to know each other and it feels like there’s a whole chunk of book missing where the “falling-in-love” phase should be.
While the writing generally flows well, and the dialogue, especially between Norgrave and Blackbern, is enjoyable, there were several times I was a little confused as to whose PoV I was in; and while there is mention of the fact that Tristan has trust issues, those are never fully explored or explained, which leaves both him and Norgrave coming across as rather two-dimensional. Tristan also appears spineless in that while he clearly knows his friend is out of control, he never makes the attempt to either curb Norgrave’s excesses or cut the apron-strings because he doesn’t want to brave Norgrave’s temper or lose his friendship. Fortunately, Tristan does eventually grow a pair, but it’s a long time coming and is only irrevocable after he is forced to face the depth of Norgrave’s depravity following the marquess’ attack on Imogene.
A Duke But No Gentleman had the potential to be a lot more than it actually turned out to be. The premise is definitely intriguing and put me in mind of early 18th century Revenge Tragedies, and especially of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where the story also hinges on a wager over a seduction. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end, because here, the characterisation is weak, the romance is thin and there are too many inconsistencies and inaccuracies throughout for the story to feel convincing. Worst of all, I really couldn’t bring myself to care very much for the central couple, who are rather bland when all is said and done.
WARNING/SPOILER: The book includes two rape scenes; not overly explicit, but necessarily unpleasant to read.