“This, madam, changes everything.”
Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…
Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!
The Duke’s Secret Heir is a second-chance romance that is loosely related to Sarah Mallory’s previous series, The Infamous Arrandales by virtue of the fact that its heroine appeared as a secondary character in The Chaperone’s Seduction. Miss Ellen Tatham as she then was, was a wealthy heiress of just seventeen, and her good-humoured level-headedness was a refreshing change from the sort of immature tantrum-throwing-teens often found within the pages of romance novels.
Having her own fortune – albeit one that came from trade – enabled Ellen to live an independent life and she spent some time after her come-out travelling with her former teacher and friend, Mrs. Ackroyd. While in Egypt some four years earlier, Ellen met and fell in love with Major Max Colnebrooke, and after a two-week, whirlwind romance, married him. After just a few weeks, the uncertain military and political situation in the region meant that it was unsafe for Ellen to remain with Max, so he arranged for her to travel back to England with the assistance of a fellow officer, and they agreed that she would wait for Max in Portsmouth.
Unfortunately, however, amid all the confusion of the British occupation of Alexandria, Ellen and her companion were unable to adhere to Max’s plan, and instead left Egypt with the assistance of the French Consul who saw them safely to France and then arranged for them to be smuggled back to England. On her return, Ellen is shocked to discover that there is no record whatsoever of Max’s presence in Egypt; there were no regiments stationed south of Cairo and most certainly there was no military chaplain in the area. Devastated, she concludes she has been duped, believing that Max arranged a fake marriage just so he could get her into bed.
When Max learned that Ellen had left Egypt with the French Consul, he immediately assumed the worst and believed that she had deserted him for a new lover. Mired in grief and rage, Max recklessly undertook increasingly dangerous missions, many of which resulted in loss of life or serious injury to others while he himself remained unscathed and for which, years later, he now carries a huge burden of guilt.
In the four years since her marriage, Ellen has made a life for herself in the Northern spa town of Harrogate, where she is widely liked and respected. But her settled existence is thrown into chaos one evening at a ball, when she is introduced to the Duke of Rossenhall – who is none other than her estranged husband, the man she had known as Max Colnebrooke. Both she and Max are completely unprepared for such an event, and their meeting is fraught with thinly veiled hostility. When they are able to have a conversation, it becomes very clear to Ellen that Max is labouring under a misapprehension about the circumstances of her departure from Egypt, and that he is extremely bitter and furiously angry. He informs her that their marriage was legal and that she is his duchess – for as long as it will take him to procure a divorce. He doesn’t care about the cost or the scandal; he just cannot countenance being married to a woman who betrayed him so easily. Ellen quickly admits that she had jumped to the wrong conclusions, but Max is adamant – until confronted with something he had not even considered, a little boy of around three years of age who addresses Ellen as “Mama”. Max knows not even a moment’s doubt; the boy’s resemblance to him is too great for him to believe otherwise than that he is looking at his son.
The existence of James – Jamie – changes everything. Max may not care about damaging Ellen’s reputation, but he is not prepared to tarnish his heir’s name with scandal, and he coldly informs his wife that they are to remain married for the sake of the boy. Ellen is genuinely repentant for having so easily believed the worst of Max and hopes that perhaps they can eventually become friends, even if there is no longer the possibility of there being any deeper feeling between them. But Max is bitter and aloof – and angry at the idea that Ellen had deliberately concealed the fact of his son’s existence from him, making the likelihood of amicable co-existence recede even further.
While the story is based around a Big Misunderstanding, Ms. Mallory doesn’t allow it to go on for too long so that after the first few chapters, both Max and Ellen know that what they believed about the circumstances surrounding their marriage and Ellen’s departure to have been erroneous. Ellen wants to apologise and move forward, but Max is unable to get past his resentment, blaming his devastation at her desertion for his willingness to throw himself into the path of danger over and over again, his despair driving him to undertake the most difficult and life-threatening missions available. He can’t deny that he is still strongly attracted to his wife, but because he blames himself – and indirectly, her – for the deaths and injuries sustained by many of his comrades, he cannot find it in himself to let go of his guilt and admit the possibility of reconciliation.
Max blaming Ellen for HIS recklessness is distasteful; his resentment has little foundation and while Ms. Mallory doesn’t try to make his position acceptable or palatable, it’s difficult to have any sympathy for him, especially in the early stages of the book when he is thoroughly disagreeable to Ellen. What the author does very well, though, is to show the real affection that grows between Max and his son, and the way in which Ellen so quickly makes herself an indispensible part of the life of his home and his estate. She is intelligent, sensible and unfailingly polite to everyone, no matter what their station; and that includes putting up with her miserable, stuck-up sister-in-law, the dowager Duchess, who believes almost everyone to be beneath her notice and does not hesitate to make it clear that she considers the daughter of a tradesman unfit to be a duchess. It’s clear that neither Ellen nor Max has stopped loving or desiring each other – but the question is whether Max can ever put his own prejudices aside and allow himself to love Ellen and make a life with her. His internal struggles are well done; the author expertly conveys how torn he is between the guilt he stubbornly tries to cling to and the truth he sees every day – Ellen’s love for and care of their son, her excellent management of his home and her essential goodness. My main criticism of this aspect of the story is that the ending is rather rushed; Max has had plenty of time, it’s true, to realise that he is tormenting himself for no good reason, but it takes him a little too long to admit it.
The Duke’s Secret Heir is well-written and the motivations and emotions of the characters are shown and explained really well; even though, as with Max’s issues, I couldn’t agree with them. I enjoyed the book, but I can’t deny that Max’s determination to shut Ellen out because of his own faults and misconceptions caused me to lower my final grade a little. Even so, it’s an entertaining, angsty read, and one that should appeal to those who enjoy second-chance romances.