After killing his opponent in a duel, Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is known as the Duke of Danger. Tortured by guilt, he shields himself with a devil-may-care attitude. However, when he kills another man in another duel, he’s beyond redemption, even though it wasn’t his fault. He refuses to smear a dead man’s name, especially when he’s left behind a blameless widow who doesn’t deserve an even bigger scandal.
Widowed and destitute, Lady Emmaline Townsend must marry the man of her parents’ choosing or beg unsympathetic relatives for support. The only way out is to ask for help from the one man she’s sworn to hate, the man who owes her anything she asks, the man who killed her husband. They strike a devil’s bargain in which passion simmers just beneath the surface. But her dead husband’s transgressions come back to haunt them and threaten their chance at love.
I’ve been enjoying Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, although I’ll admit I was rather disappointed in the last instalment, The Duke of Defiance and wasn’t sure I was going to read further. But I decided to put that one down as an aberration and I’m glad I picked up The Duke of Danger, which is a much more strongly-written and well-conceived story than the previous one. The eponymous duke isn’t actually a duke, but the ducal nicknames were invented – tougue-in-cheek – to show that the gentlemen in question were of the highest echelons of society and far above the touch of the young ladies who coined them – as well as to be alliterative ;). The Duke of Danger shows a different side to the dashing hero who has fought many duels and escaped with nary a scratch; Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is a man of great integrity and honour who has acquired his moniker because of his involvement in a couple of duels in which he either killed or badly wounded his opponent, but who in in no way sees these events as badges of honour. Instead, he is haunted by the fact he has taken life in cold blood and hates himself for it.
It’s with a heavy heart, and as a last resort, that Lionel calls out Viscount Townsend for threatening to besmirch the honour of a lady who is one of Lionel’s oldest and dearest friends. He gave Townsend every chance to recant, but the man refused, leaving Lionel with one alternative – he will shoot wide in order to merely graze his opponent and take whatever comes his way. But when Townsend turns and fires before the end of the count, Lionel reacts instinctively and out of self-preservation – and shoots the man in the leg instead. It’s believed the wound is not a fatal one – but days later Townsend dies and impulsively, Lionel pays a visit to his widow, telling her she can call on him if there is ever anything she needs. After that, as he has done before, Lionel leaves England to escape the gossip and in an attempt to dull the agony of regret.
Townsend’s death has left his young widow, Lady Emmaline, with nothing but debts. She is furious with Axbridge, furious with Townsend for leaving her in this position, and furious with her parents who are set on forcing her to remarry a man who is distasteful to her. She fell madly in love with Townsend and consented to elope with him in spite of her parents’ misgivings; misgivings which were borne out when her husband started to spend more and more time away from home, stopped coming to her bed and began to incur large gambling debts. She can’t help feeling a sense of relief that she has been released from a marriage which was clearly heading for disaster, but then feels guilty for it, and angry at herself. Emmaline has quickly transitioned from the happy, optimistic debutante who ran away with the man she loved and has become jaded, cynical and hardened. When she hears Axbridge has returned to England she hatches a plan to humiliate him in front of a large gathering of the ton, but has to change tack when her father tells her he has bestowed her hand in marriage to the lecherous Sir Duncan Thayer. She reminds Axbridge of his offer to do anything he can to help her and tells him that he can do something – he can marry her. She makes it clear that the marriage will be in name only and that he must accept that she will never forgive him. She will live in his house until he can purchase a house for her and while she is there she expects to have as little to do with him as possible. She will not take meals with him, she will not accompany him into society, she will certainly not provide him with an heir. In exchange he will settle her remaining debts and will provide for her for the rest of her life.
It’s a terrible deal, but Lionel feels it’s his just desserts given the pain he has caused her, and they are married by special license the very next day.
I do love the marriage-of-convenience trope, and I don’t think I’ve read a romance before in which the heroine marries the man who killed her husband, so kudos to Ms. Burke for coming up with an unusual premise, and for creating a couple of interesting and engaging characters. Emmaline is certainly not easy to like at first, determined as she is to make Lionel’s life a misery. Eventually, however, she begins to admit that her first marriage had been failing and that she had not been happy for some time. Lionel is by far the easier of the two to sympathise with, even though he occupies some rather shaky moral ground because he has killed two men and believes himself ultimately responsible for the death of a third. He duelled for sound, honourable reasons; once to avenge his father’s death, once to protect a child and once to protect a friend – but even so, he is filled with self-hatred and believes he no longer deserves the sort of happiness he has always longed for and had experienced as the child of two loving parents who cared for him and each other very deeply.
Emmaline eventually realises that in attempting to punish Lionel by dooming him to loneliness, she is punishing herself as well, so she starts to relent just a little. She takes a few meals with him, engages him in conversation… and begins to realise that she has badly misjudged him. But even then, things are not at all easy and it seems that for every step forward the two make in their relationship, they take two back. The sparks fly between them right from the start, and the author creates and builds the sexual tension between them extremely well; but even once they have broken Emmaline’s no-sex rule, the road ahead of them is still strewn with potential pitfalls.
One thing they have strongly in their favour is that they actually communicate with each other honestly, which is very refreshing in a genre prone to secrets and misunderstandings. There are a couple of times in the story when I suspect a less experienced author may have chosen to have one or other character keep a secret in order to create unnecessary drama; Ms. Burke wisely doesn’t take that option, and I very much appreciated it.
The Duke of Danger is angsty, but not overwhelmingly so, and the HEA is certainly very hard-won, and well-deserved. The secondary plotline involving the search for a blackmailer is deftly dovetailed into the romance, and serves to flesh out the backstory involving Townsend and the reasons for the duel as well as to provide some drama towards the end. There are a couple of details that had me scratching my head (I thought that when challenged to a duel, the challengee got to choose the weapons, time and place, not the challenger), but overall, this is an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying read with an unusual premise, and most definitely earns a recommendation.