Suspected of his brother’s murder, Lancelot Hemingford, Duke of Aylesbury, was forced to give up his hell-raising habits in London for the anonymity of quiet country living. So, when an opportunity arises to clear his name in exchange for proposing to the niece of a neighbor, he sees no choice but to accept. Plus, seducing the reluctant maiden will be a most intriguing challenge…
As Marianne Radley is dependent on her uncle, she must accept the Duke’s marriage proposal at her family’s request, despite her belief he is irredeemably wicked. But along with marrying him, she intends to sniff out the duke’s unsavory secrets and expose them to the world: a plan that would be flawless were it not for one minor detail—even she, with all her determination, is not immune to the charms of a rakish duke…
This is the final book in Madeline Hunter’s Wicked trilogy featuring the three Hemingford brothers; or rather two Hemingfords and their half-brother, Gareth Fitzallen. Running through all the books is the thread concerning the recent death of the eldest Hemingford brother, Percy, who was a thoroughly unpleasant person and who disliked his brothers so intensely that he would go out of his way to make their lives difficult. But Percy was the Duke of Aylesbury, so his death naturally attracted a lot of attention; and worse, his brother Lancelot (Lance), who has now inherited the dukedom, is, in some quarters, suspected of having murdered him.
Lance is a man who likes to live well and play hard, but his brother’s death cast a pall over his normally hedonistic lifestyle and his brothers Gareth and Ives have tried hard to get him to keep a low profile while the investigation into Percy’s death is ongoing. Lance hates his enforced rustication, even though he finds ways to keep himself entertained (as is clear from the very first page of the book!); he is bored, sarcastic and not always grateful for his brothers’ intervention and advice, and now the investigation appears to have concluded, is impatient for the local magistrate to make known his decision. All Lance wants is to get his life back, but with suspicion still rife and society still thriving on the gossip about his possible guilt, that isn’t going to happen until he is completely exonerated.
Out riding one day, Lance encounters Marianne Radley, the niece of Sir Horace, the local magistrate and the man who is responsible for delivering the final verdict on Percy’s death. Marianne is lovely and Lance is immediately smitten, but she is a lady and thus off-limits unless he is interested in anything more than seduction. Which at that moment, he is not. Still, he can’t help thinking about her and wondering how she would look and act in his bed.
Since the death of her father (Sir Horace’s brother) Marianne and her mother have made their home with Sir Horace and his daughter, Nora. Believing Lance to have been responsible for a past outrage against Nora, Sir Horace believes he has found a golden opportunity to increase both his social standing and improve his financial situation. He offers to tell the coroner to announce that Percy’s death was due to natural causes if Lance will agree to marry Nora.
Marianne is horrified. Nora is a delicate and very troubled young woman who lives her life away from the world and there is no doubt that being forced into marriage – any marriage – would kill her. When it becomes apparent to Sir Horace that his scheme will not do, he turns to Marianne and insists that she marry the duke instead. But Lance is not ready to submit to blackmail, no matter that he finds Marianne very attractive and enjoys her company. He decides it’s time to kick things up a gear and asks his brothers for help in proving his innocence once and for all. But when a London newssheet prints another column by the gossip monger, Elijah Tewkesbury that announces the uncovering of new, damning evidence against him, Lance decides there’s nothing for it but accede to Radley’s proposal and make Marianne his duchess.
The arranged/forced marriage trope is a favourite of mine, and it works especially well here. Marianne proves herself to be more than up to Lance’s weight; she’s clever, spirited, loving and more than able to stand up for herself. She is also convinced that Lance is a wicked man and is determined to expose his secrets – but that becomes ever more difficult to do as she falls under the spell of a charming, witty, sexy and unexpectedly compassionate man who is nothing like the dastardly hedonist she had expected him to be. And as she gets to know him, she comes to believe firmly in his innocence and to want to help him to prove it.
In the previous books, Lance has certainly lived up to his moniker as a “wicked” duke, although the author made it very clear that he was stuck in a vicious circle of dissipation and depression over his situation. He obviously no longer enjoyed the endless round of drinking, gambling and women he’d been used to, but was using them as a way to forget the fix he was in. Having lived his life as the spare, it was almost his job, as a younger son, to go off the rails and live it up more than a little, and he was completely unprepared to inherit a dukedom. When seen in that light, his hellraising and discontent are perhaps understandable. So it’s a big step forward for him in this story when he decides he’s had enough of waiting and determines to take back his life, even though that involves being forced into marriage. Yet Lance is not unhappy at the prospect of wedding Marianne, who is perfect duchess material; well-bred, intelligent, sensible and ladylike. The fact that he wants badly to take her to bed is another plus and the romance between them is very well developed. There’s a real sense of two people of similar understanding working out how to make a life together as well as of two people who share a strong mutual attraction enjoying the sensual pleasures to be had with someone with whom they share an emotional connection.
There’s another underlying theme that is subtly explored, which is the importance of familial connections, both good and bad. Both Lance and Marianne are betrayed by their relatives; Marianne’s uncle pretty much sells her into marriage, while Lance is still living under the shadow cast by the brother who hated him and constantly belittled him. In fact, Percy is finally revealed to have been such a bastard that if Lance HAD murdered him I’d have given him a medal! Those negative associations are brilliantly contrasted with the other important relationship in the book, namely that between Lance and his brothers. They do all the things brothers do – get drunk and talk about girls, tease, annoy, exasperate and threaten – but it’s obvious that deep down, they are clearly very fond of each other and would do anything for one another. The bond between them is superbly drawn and has easily been one of the best things about each of the books in the series.
The Wicked Duke is an entertaining and lushly romantic read and a fitting end to the trilogy. While there’s a mystery to be solved, the author keeps the romance firmly front and centre and the balance between the two elements of the plot is just about right. I’ve read a number of books by Ms. Hunter before, but I still have quite a few on my TBR, which is good news, as I’ll have time to tackle a few more while I look forward to whatever she comes up with next.