From country miss… to London duchess!
Sophie Trevelyan has been enjoying her visit to London, even if her closest companion is an overweight pug! Then she encounters the dashing Duke of Harcourt, who intrigues her more than is strictly proper…
Max knows he must marry. He’s looking for the opposite of his high-spirited fiancée, who died some years ago, so he tries to keep his distance from bubbly Sophie. But when her life is endangered, Max feels compelled to rescue her…with a very unexpected proposal!
In The Duke’s Unexpected Bride, Lara Temple has created a charming and entertaining riff on the “stuffy aristocrat meets breath-of-fresh-air heroine” trope in which the hero and heroine find themselves unexpectedly betrothed and having to find a way to reconcile their very opposite personalities.
Miss Sophie Trevelyan is enjoying the temporary escape from her overcrowded family home in the country afforded by her current visit to London to act as companion to her eccentric Aunt Minnie. Her aunt rarely rises from her bed so there is little for Sophie to do, but she is nonetheless enjoying having space and time to herself for a change, and is determined to beat the previous record for a Stay With Aunt Minnie (two weeks) set by one of her cousins.
Deciding that one of the most likely ways to earn her aunt’s approbation will be to take care of her overweight pug, Sophie manages to coax the dog out of the house and get him to waddle across to the gardens opposite her aunt’s town house, where, in spite of his bulk, he promptly discovers a liking for chasing birds. Unfortunately, he gives her the slip, running right into the path of a fashionable couple out for a stroll, who turn out to be her aunt’s neighbours. Chatting happily away, explaining who she is, why she’s in the garden and apologising for the dog’s escape, Sophie doesn’t notice that the gentleman is rather taken aback at her lack of propriety in speaking thus to a couple of perfect strangers – and cheerfully makes her way home, thinking that the couple are the most elegant people she has ever seen.
Max, Duke of Harcourt is simultaneously fascinated and irritated by the young woman’s lack of decorum, finding her outspoken friendliness and the absence of any trace of artifice in her manner refreshing while also thinking her rather too forward. Realising she must be one of Lady Minerva Huntley’s many relations, Max’s sister, Lady Hetty, suggests she might call upon the her at some point, after which they resume their discussion about Max’s search for a bride.
Bound by a promise to his late father to marry by his thirty-first birthday, Max is seeking a wife who is the epitome of modest womanhood and correct behaviour, someone who will never cause him a moment’s unease – in short, a woman the complete opposite of his previous fiancée, who was unconventionally lively, impetuous and highly-strung. The betrothal ended tragically, and Max has eschewed anything and anyone that smacks of impulsiveness or recklessness ever since. Yet when, a day or so later, he sees the young woman with the pug sitting in the gardens, sketching, he finds himself stopping to speak with her. And when, the next day, he meets her on the street, apparently on the way to see the exhibition at the Royal Academy, he offers to take her there himself, he’s unable to account for his behaviour. They haven’t been properly introduced, he had absolutely no reason to converse with her and none – other than concern for her safety and reputation – to act as her escort. Max still doesn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by Sophie’s lively conversation and her disregard for – or lack of knowledge of – proper behaviour, but there’s no question that he’s well and truly smitten.
Having seen some of Sophie’s sketches, Max already knows that she is a talented artist, but during their visit to the exhibition, and as their conversation begins to take a turn from the awkward to the mutually enjoyable, he also realises she’s intelligent, witty and insightful. He enjoys both the afternoon and her company, until they are approached by Lord Wivenhoe, who proceeds to flirt with Sophie, much to Max’s annoyance.
When the rumour mill starts grinding with the news of Max’s having escorted an unknown young woman about, he chastises himself for his impulsive behaviour. But he can’t seem to help himself around Sophie; something about her has utterly bewitched him and he thinks that the sooner he is married to a suitably demure, ladylike young woman, the better. The problem is, however, that the ladies whom he is considering for the position of his duchess have all begun to seem stiff and uninteresting, and although he tries to tell himself that his desire for Sophie is simply a momentary aberration, he can’t quite convince himself and determines that the safest course is to stay away from her.
This proves to be more difficult than he had anticipated, however, especially when Lord Wivehnoe seems determined to pursue Sophie, in spite – and probably because – of Max’s attempt to warn the man off. When Sophie is placed in a very uncomfortable situation, Max declares publicly that she’s his betrothed – and their fate is sealed. Max is torn. On the one hand, he’s appalled at the sort of rash behaviour he thought he’d left behind him long ago, and on the other, he’s pleased at the knowledge that Sophie is now his and that he will soon be able to slake his lust for her in all sorts of extremely pleasurable ways.
I admit that during the early stages of the story, I had reservations about both protagonists. I wasn’t wild about Sophie because her innocent, quirky, girl-from-the-country-who-doesn’t-know-what’s-what persona rang slightly false; and while Max is presented as the model of propriety, he is fairly quick to break his own rules when it comes to Sophie, spending time alone with her and escorting her about unchaperoned – all of which made it difficult to completely accept him as the uptight, stuffy aristocrat he is supposed to be. Fortunately, however, my apprehensions were quickly dispelled, because Sophie is revealed to be clever, self-aware and perceptive; she knows she’s not perfect but doesn’t feel the need to apologise for her shortcomings and is all the more likeable because of it. And as the story progresses, Ms. Temple clearly shows that Max is struggling to work out what he truly wants as opposed to what he thinks he wants. His insecurities about the past are impinging upon his present and he has to decide what type of man he wants to be; one who embraces his present and looks forward to the future, or one who allows his past to push him down a path which isn’t right for him. Ms. Temple does an admirable job of flipping the “sophisticated hero/innocent heroine” trope on its head here, by having Sophie’s empathy and love for Max take the lead in their relationship, gradually bringing him to see that he can’t continue to look back, and I loved watching him come to thoroughly appreciate Sophie’s unique personality and to realise that he loves her because of it, rather than in spite of it.
The one false note struck in the book is in the final plot twist, which is somewhat melodramatic, and felt like it had simply been included in order to introduce a bit of last minute tension into the story.
In spite of the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed The Duke’s Unexpected Bride and would definitely recommend it to others. The romance is superbly developed, the chemistry between Max and Sophie is palpable and the love scenes are sensual and well-written. This is the second book I’ve read and enjoyed by Lara Temple, and she’s earned herself a place on my list of authors to watch.