Christmas in London is a busy time at the little bookshop in Duke Street, for love, literature, and shopping. Four couples come and go and discover that happy ever after makes the perfect Christmas gift. A new anthology from the bestselling authors of Christmas in the Duke’s Arms and Dancing in the Duke’s Arms.
Christmas in Duke Street is the third anthology from four of the most popular authors of historical romance and, as with last year’s Christmas in the Duke’s Arms is a set of seasonal novellas that are loosely linked together, this time through the part played in each story by the unassuming Duke Street Bookshop. Otherwise known as On The Shelf, a name coined by some wag who noticed the place’s popularity with the spinsters of London, the nickname also serves to distinguish it from the other – more famous – Duke Street, in a more fashionable area of the West End.
The Rake Who Loved Christmas
– by Miranda Neville
Grade : B Sensuality : Warm
Miranda Neville’s The Rake Who Loved Christmas is first up, and introduces us to Sir Devlyn Stratton, a wealthy man-about-town who, in the face of current fashion, loves Christmas and the process of selecting gifts for the family he adores. This year’s festivities, however, are tinged with sadness, as it will be the first Christmas the family has spent without Dev’s father, and he is finding it difficult to adjust.
The widowed Oriel Sinclair lives with her cantankerous, invalid father above their print shop next-door to the book shop in Duke Street. Business is poor and she is struggling to make ends meet; but a brief meeting with a handsome stranger in the book shop next door allows her to forget her problems, if only for a few moments. She knows it’s ridiculous to dream of such a man, but she can’t stop thinking about him, even though she has no idea who he is.
When his younger brother tells him that he doesn’t want to marry the young lady he is expected to wed because he is in love with someone else, Dev thinks Merrick has fallen prey to a fortune-hunter. Discovering that the object of his brother’s affections is none other than intriguingly lovely woman he had met earlier that day in a bookshop is a double-strength blow to Dev. Not only is he going to have to hurt his brother’s feelings by detaching him from her, but the woman for whom he experienced such a strong attraction is nothing but a heartless mercenary.
Dev’s ideas about Oriel’s nefarious scheme are, of course, the product of his own jealousy, and he finds himself unable to maintain them the more he gets to know her. The pair dances around each other delightfully, and there is a real poignancy and sense of longing to many of their interactions. Watching Dev struggle with missing his father and then with his feelings for Oriel is very affecting, and even though he is an idiot to begin with, he is easy to sympathise with and I was very quickly rooting for him and Oriel to find their way to each other.
A Seduction in Winter
– by Carolyn Jewel
Grade : B Sensuality : Warm
Carolyn Jewel’s contribution, A Seduction in Winter is the story of a badly scarred young woman and her reunion with the childhood friend who had been her champion when others were cruel to her because of her marred looks. Over the years, Honora Baynard has followed the military career of Lord Leoline Marrable, sure that he has never given her a second thought. She lives a secluded life with her father, a renowned artist, and they visit London once a year, but even then Honora doesn’t go into society. Her father thinks he is protecting her from hurt by insisting that she stays at home or wears a thick veil every time she goes out, so that Honora has begun to think of herself as ugly and to believe that she should not inflict the sight of her scarred visage upon others. When Leo returns to London, she has no hopes of meeting him – until he walks into the Duke Street Bookshop one day just before Christmas.
There is a charming, wistful feel to the writing in the early stages of this story as the reader comes to know Honora as a young woman who has been brought to feel unloveable through the well-meaning but misguided intentions of her father. Leo always felt a strong connection to her, even as a child, and is pleased when he discovers that connection has not faded during the years of their separation. Where Honora and her father see only her scar, he sees a beautiful young woman who has been cheated out of living her life, and he is determined that she should come to see herself as he sees her, and not as something hideous to be hidden away. The relationship between the two is well-drawn, although I thought that perhaps Honora was a little too quick to set aside the years of conditioning which made her dislike showing her face to others. Overall, though, this love story is full of genuine affection and tenderness, and there is plenty of chemistry between the leads.
A Prince in Her Stocking
– by Shana Galen
Grade : B Sensuality : Warm
Shana Galen’s A Prince in Her Stocking is a companion piece to the story which appeared in this summer’s anthology, Dancing in the Duke’s Arms – in which Princess Vivienne of the fictional kingdom of Glynaven is on the run from the revolutionaries who have killed her family. In this story, we meet her brother, Lucien who is also in hiding and believes himself to be the sole survivor of the revolution. Practically destitute, Lucien is living on the streets of London and haunting the Duke Street Bookshop by day, searching for the papers which can prove his identity which he believes to have been included in a shipment of books sent to England by his mother.
Lady Cassandra Ashborne (Cass) has always been rather shy and unassertive, and even though she is now a widow (her late husband was old enough to be her grandfather) lives under the thumb of her domineering sister-in-law.
On one of her frequent visits to On the Shelf, she hears rumours that the handsome young man she sees there every day is actually a prince, and while on the one hand she tells herself that’s ridiculous, on the other, she can’t help being curious about him. Plucking up the courage to speak to him, Cass is surprised by the strong attraction she feels towards him, and, knowing that she is unlikely ever to have the opportunity to feel such emotions again, is determined to pursue a further acquaintance with him. This is a lovely story about a young woman emerging from her shell and finding the courage to take charge of her own life. There’s a bit of action, too, and we once again meet Vivi and her duke as Lucien strives to keep Cass safe at all costs, even if it means sacrificing his own happiness.
The Appeal of Christmas
– by Grace Burrowes
Grade : B+ Sensuality : Warm
The final story, The Appeal of Christmas by Grace Burrowes, is probably my favourite of the set, because I’m a sucker for a good friends-to-lovers story. Sensible, dependable Hazel Hooper has been in love with Gervaise Stoneleigh for years, but the highly respected lawyer has been far too busy to see it. He doesn’t enjoy Christmas and seeks refuge in On the Shelf, the sights and smells offered by all those wonderful books a welcome distraction from thoughts of the seasonal visits he will be expected to make to his family.
While browsing, he finds a love letter tucked among the pages of a book of poetry and is so taken with the words that he tucks it away to read properly later, intrigued by the sentiments expressed and wondering about the identity of the author. His re-readings, however, prompt him to wonder more about the nature of the man who could have inspired such feelings in a woman, and then to feel that he would like to be such a man. At the same time, he gradually comes to realise how much he has taken Hazel for granted over the years; how she has always put his needs above hers and how she shows him through so many small considerations how much she cares for him.
Ms Burrowes creates a lovely, festive atmosphere with her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells associated with going Christmas shopping in the London streets. The protagonists are likeable characters whose verbal interactions are witty and often very funny, as are Hazel’s one-sided conversations with her cat. There’s real depth to their friendship, and a delicious sensuality simmering between them after what should have been a simple buss on the cheek turns into a lingering kiss that is going to change their friendship for ever.
All four stories in this anthology are well-written, entertaining and can be read in any order, in one sitting or in several, which is, I suppose, the beauty of anthologies. Christmas on Duke Street is another set of enjoyable, feel-good stories from this group of talented authors and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone seeking their seasonal historical romance fix in short bursts when there isn’t time to sit down with a full-length novel.