My Once and Future Duke (The Wagers of Sin #1) by Caroline Linden

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What happens at the infamous Vega Club . . .

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can’t afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that’s too extravagant to refuse, she can’t resist. If she wins, she’ll get five thousand pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club . . .

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he’s at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it’s a lie. He can’t keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. If he wins, he wants her—for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what’s left of Sophie’s reputation. It might even cost her her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off . . .

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden writes the most wonderful character-driven romances, and she’s a favourite author of mine. Whenever I want to read something I know will be beautifully and intelligently written, with a gorgeous hero and a heroine I can root for, she’s someone I know I can rely on to deliver something that will hit the spot, and a new book by her is always a cause for celebration. Her latest release, My Once and Future Duke, the first in her new Wagers of Sin series, is a superb example of what she does best, and boasts a well-developed, sensual romance between two engaging and intriguing characters – who must find a way to bridge the (social) gulf between them if they are to make a life together.

Sophie Graham, granddaughter of Viscount Makepeace, is orphaned at the age of twelve when her parents both die from serious illness. The viscount cut off his son when he fell in love with and married a French opera singer, but Sophie’s father never regretted his choice; he loved his wife dearly, and they were a happy family, travelling around Europe to her mother’s various singing engagements, returning to England only when her voice began to falter. With no other source of income, Sophie’s father supported his wife and daughter by what he could make at the gaming tables; having some talent at mathematics, probabilities and odds, he didn’t fare too badly. From him, Sophie learned many card games – and from the lads in the stables, she learned dicing, how to calculate odds, when to be cautious and when to take a risk. After her parents’ deaths, the viscount takes Sophie to a good school, making it clear that his financial support will stop the day Sophie turns eighteen. Sophie works hard and makes some good friends at school, but knows she can rely on no-one but herself to provide for her future. She has come up with a plan to ensure her financial security, but it’s risky and will mean living on the very edge of respectability.

Sophie longs for home, family and the sort of love she hasn’t experienced since her parents died. The only way to achieve that stability is for her to find a respectable gentleman to marry – but given that she is no debutante, she’s in her mid-twenties, has no family to speak of and is practically penniless, she decides she must make herself a little nest egg so that she will not go to her prospective husband empty handed. The only way Sophie knows how to make money is by gambling, and fortunately, there is a club in London which admits women as well as men, the Vega Club. She has played there a few nights a week for the past three years, and is quietly building her fortune, a little at a time.

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, is furious with his younger brother, Philip, for yet again running up gambling debts and expecting Jack to pay them. Jack came into his title when he was just twenty-four and hadn’t really finished kicking up his heels as “the heir”, but he had to settle down and assume his responsibilities quickly, leading some of his friends and associates –and especially his brother – to dismiss him as a dull dog. But Jack’s responsibilities include not allowing his brother to beggar the dukedom, so he tells Philip he will pay his latest debt on the condition that it’s the last time he wagers such a large sum AND that he does not set foot in Vega’s again. So it’s easy to understand his ire when, having visited the club’s owner to pay the debt, Jack is on his way out when he sees Philip at the Hazard table, losing to a lovely young woman in a scarlet gown.

Jack is almost knocked sideways by the sudden stab of desire that flashes through him when the woman turns to face him. He’s never had such a visceral reaction to any woman, and the fact that she throws him off balance only adds fuel to the fire of his fury over Philip’s duplicity. In the heat of his anger he makes it clear he believes the woman has set out to fleece his brother and then, uncharacteristically rattled, Jack proposes a scandalous wager – if he loses the game, he will pay the young woman five thousand pounds. If he wins, she will spend a week with him.

By this time, Sophie is sufficiently annoyed by the insults being levelled at her by this stranger – whom she has guessed is Philip’s brother – to let her temper get the better of her, and she accepts the wager. It’s clear to her that Ware is a complete novice at the game, but Hazard is a game of chance… and Sophie’s luck is about to run out.

Ms. Linden has created a gorgeously sensual romance between two people from very different backgrounds and stations in life who are perfect for each other but whose social positions look set to keep them apart. Jack has been bought up to duty and responsibility, and knows he is expected to wed a “suitable” young woman of the ton and have the sort of comfortable and unemotional marriage conducted by most people of his station. But the few days he spends with Sophie are a revelation; she’s kind, witty and clever, and it’s not long before he realises she’s everything he wants, and the woman he can see himself spending his life with. And while Sophie at first believes Jack to be the arrogant, stuffed shirt he is reputed to be, she soon comes to see he’s nothing of the sort and falls hard and fast for the loving, warm-hearted and tenderly affectionate man beneath the ducal exterior. She and Jack spend just a few days together, but it’s long enough for both of them to realise that they have found a profound and true love – but how can a duke marry a nobody who makes her living at the gaming tables?

The romance between Jack and Sophie is incredibly well written and beautifully developed; they fall in love over a very short period of time, but Ms. Linden imbues their romance with such a strong sense of compatibility, mutual longing and sensuality that it doesn’t feel rushed or the slightest bit underdeveloped. The only reason I’ve not given the book a five star rating is due to the misunderstanding thrown in towards the end, which seems to have been injected for the sake of providing a bit of eleventh-hour drama. Sophie’s reaction is somewhat out of character, too – she’s prepared to believe the worst without any evidence, and despite the fact that she knows better. Still, things are cleared up quite quickly, and of course, all ends well.

My Once and Future Duke is a fabulous read and once again proves Caroline Linden to be at the forefront of historical romance authors writing today. I have no hesitation in recommending it heartily, and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series later this year.

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