A MAN OF SIN
Devastatingly handsome. Vain. Unscrupulous. Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is the man London whispers about in boudoirs and back alleys. A notorious rake and blackmailer, Montgomery has returned from exile, intent on seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. But what he finds in his own bedroom may lay waste to all his plans.
A WOMAN OF HONOR
Born a bastard, housekeeper Bridget Crumb is clever, bold, and fiercely loyal. When her aristocratic mother becomes the target of extortion, Bridget joins the Duke of Montgomery’s household to search for the incriminating evidence-and uncovers something far more dangerous.
A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY THEM BOTH
Astonished by the deceptively prim-and surprisingly witty-domestic spy in his chambers, Montgomery is intrigued. And try as she might, Bridget can’t resist the slyly charming duke. Now as the two begin their treacherous game of cat and mouse, they soon realize that they both have secrets-and neither may be as nefarious-or as innocent-as they appear . . .
In Duke of Midnight, the sixth book in her Maiden Lane series, Elizabeth Hoyt introduced a fascinating secondary character by the name of Valentine Napier. He’s a duke. He’s unutterably gorgeous. He’s extremely wealthy. He’s also clever, devious, amoral and vain, and through the last few books in the series, we’ve watched him manipulate, blackmail, orchestrate kidnaps and engineer goodness knows what other nefarious schemes.
He seemed at first to be an almost archetypal villain; the sort who is so sure he’s the smartest person in the room – as well as the handsomest, richest and most powerful – that there’s almost no way to bring him down, and given some of the things he did, especially in Dearest Rogue, we wanted him brought down.
But then came Sweetest Scoundrel when it became clear that although Val was a ruthless bastard, there was one person in his life who loved him and whom he loved (even though he would probably never admit that out loud!) – his illegitimate half-sister, Eve Dinwoody. And then we learned that he had saved her from unspeakable horror, and has been looking out for her ever since; and it began to seem that perhaps there might just be something worth saving beneath that beautiful exterior.
As a result of his actions in Dearest Rogue, in which he attempted to abduct Lady Phoebe, the sister of the Duke of Wakefield, Val was exiled from England. He is supposed to have been travelling on the Continent, but hints were dropped throughout Sweetest Scoundrel that he was in fact doing no such thing and remained much closer to home. In his absence, his household has been admirably run by his rather prim housekeeper, Bridget Crumb, who, we have learned, took a post at Hermes House for motives of her own. She is the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic lady who is being blackmailed by Val, and who approached Bridget to ask for her help. Aided by the references provided by her mother, Bridget secured the post at the duke’s London house, and takes every opportunity afforded her to search his apartments for the letters which give him his hold over her mother.
Bridget has so far been able to keep her search secret, in spite of an odd feeling of being watched. But unfortunately, her luck runs out just as she makes an interesting discovery. Poised indelicately across the duke’s bed, she is surprised by the man himself, who, not unnaturally, wants to know exactly what his housekeeper is about. Her calm, poised response and refusal to be intimidated by him intrigue Val immediately, so much so that he decides to make it his business to see if he can unsettle the very proper Mrs. Crumb.
The big draw of the story is, of course, the sexy game of cat-and-mouse that plays out between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait. The romance is as well-written and as steamy as any Ms Hoyt has written, and the sexual chemistry between the two leads is scorching, but even though the sparks fly between them right from the start, their relationship is remarkably free from the insta-lust that is so prevalent in romances currently. Val doesn’t think Bridget is particularly attractive to start with, and it’s true that she isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense. The initial spark is provided by Val’s curiosity about his very proper housekeeper and her refusal to be cowed by him; he is attracted to her spirit and intrigued by her pride and the untapped passion – not just sexual passion – he senses in her. And although Bridget can’t miss the fact that her employer is an incredibly good-looking man, she’s more concerned with trying to keep up with his quick mind and mood changes and to second guess him than she is with mooning over how searingly hot he is. Val is an intensely sensual being, so it’s perfectly natural – to him – to be wondering about what Bridget looks like without her clothes, but It’s a while before he realises that he actually wants to bed her quite badly and for him to start debating the best way to seduce her in earnest. In the meantime, he has set in motion a blackmail scheme so audacious that it will clear the way for him to return to society with no questions asked.
Ms. Hoyt set herself one helluva challenge by setting out to redeem the unscrupulous Duke of Montgomery and turn him into a hero. To be honest, I’m not completely sure I bought his turnaround, but I can’t deny that I absolutely loved him in this book. He’s all those things I said before – but he is somehow ridiculously endearing as well, with his dry wit and his penchant for hyperbole:
“I sought you out amongst your labors to bend my knee and plead that you leave the dust and spiders and mouse droppings to come and lounge awhile and perhaps partake of luncheon.”
– and then there’s his complete and utter self-confidence:
He thought and thought – many considered him quite a genius, including himself – and at last he thought of something he could say. “I’m sorry.”
Making this beautiful but conscienceless man who takes every privilege as his due into an appealing character is quite an achievement. But the author takes it even further once the reader is allowed more insight into what has made Val the way he is. The more we learn of his upbringing, the easier it is to begin to sympathise with and understand him. Considering what we discovered about Eve’s past in the previous book, the fact that much of Val’s backstory is utterly heart-breaking is unsurprising; but rather than dwelling on that too much, Ms. Hoyt concentrates on showing us the effects of that upbringing. The son of a sadistic father and a mother who hated him, Val has never seen any normal human reactions, so he has never learned them. This aspect of his character is rendered brilliantly by the way information about him is given; it often comes in the form of offhand comments, such as when he says “I started at twelve” and describes his initiation to sexual pleasure at the hands (or rather, mouth!) of a nineteen-year-old-housemaid – statements to which Bridget and the reader stop to think “what?!” while Val natters blithely on. The contrast between Val’s response and ours is a very effective way of showing how broken he is, while also showing that he is completely unaware of being so. He’s like an undisciplined child; so immensely rich and powerful that he can do exactly as he likes with little to no threat of retribution. He has had no role models, nobody to curb his excesses, and most importantly of all no-one (other than Eve, whom he had to send away for her own safety) has ever loved him or wanted him to love them.
Bridget is an extremely likeable heroine, and she exerts a subtle, but calming influence on Val which strengthens as the story progresses. Strong and stubborn, she’s exactly the sort of heroine he needs – one who won’t let him off the hook and who forces himself to take a look at himself in a way he’s never been challenged to do before. But she’s also an extremely compassionate woman; the reader feels her heart-breaking for the “beautiful, bright boy” broken by depraved cruelty, because ours is doing the same thing. She’s the only one to see through Val’s mercurial exterior to the potentially extraordinary man inside, and she becomes his moral compass, determined to get him to see what she sees, that he is capable of both being both more and better. Under her influence, he starts to think differently and to admit that there are points of view other than his own.
And I loved that their relationship is one of give and take, albeit on different scales. While Bridget is encouraging Val to locate his conscience, he is showing her that she’s a highly sensual woman and encouraging her to experience life’s pleasures, whether it’s making love in the middle of the day or drinking a rare vintage.
Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel in spite of a few holes (another kidnapping?), and the eponymous hero – or anti-hero – is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance. He is not completely reformed by the end of the story; rather Ms Hoyt wisely chooses to show him taking that first, big step in the right direction by having him learn to put someone else first, and leaving readers with the sense that with Bridget beside him, he will get there. Most importantly, she shows that he is going to do that without having a complete personality transplant. He might have given up on the blackmail and extortion, but he’s still a canny bastard with a wicked sense of humour and – lucky Bridget! – a devil between the sheets. And I suspect we wouldn’t want him any other way.