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Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, will never win prizes for virtue. But even he draws the line at running off with his best friend’s bride. All he’s trying to do is recapture the slightly inebriated Lady Olympia Hightower and return her to her intended bridegroom.
For reasons that elude her, bookish, bespectacled Olympia is supposed to marry a gorgeous rake of a duke. The ton is flabbergasted. Her family’s ecstatic. And Olympia? She’s climbing out of a window, bent on a getaway. But tall, dark, and exasperating Ripley is hot on her trail, determined to bring her back to his friend. For once, the world-famous hellion is trying to do the honorable thing.
So why does Olympia have to make it so deliciously difficult for him . . . ?
A new book from Loretta Chase is always cause for celebration, and her latest, A Duke in Shining Armor, gets her new Difficult Dukes trilogy off to a start worthy of much festivity. On the face of it, it’s the very simple story of two people falling in love with the ‘wrong’ (right) person and having to decide what they are willing to risk to be together; but this is Loretta Chase and in her hands, ‘simple’ encompasses fully-rounded characters with real emotional depth, lots and lots of wonderful, witty dialogue, a beautifully developed romance and a good helping of sharp-eyed social observation.
Lady Olympia Hightower, only daughter of the Earl of Gonerby, has spent the majority of her seven London Seasons sitting on the sidelines with the wallflowers and dowagers. She’s practical, sensible, not the least bit dashing and not the sort of young lady men notice. In fact, her one claim to fame is that she has been voted Most Boring Girl of the Season for seven years in a row. So the last thing she expects is to receive a marriage proposal from the gorgeously handsome but dissolute Duke of Ashmont, referred to as ‘His Grace with the Angel Face’ by his closest friends and fellow Dis-Graces, the Duke of Blackwood and the Duke of Ripley. With financially irresponsible parents and six brothers to be provided for Olympia knows what must be done. Ashmont is well-heeled – if not especially well-behaved – so she accepts his proposal and preparations for the wedding go on apace.
Hugh Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, has literally just returned from a year spent abroad, so is surprised, on the eve of the wedding, to be pressed into service as groomsman. He does his job well; Ashmont arrives on time the next morning (albeit a little worse for wear from the previous night’s carouse and subsequent fight) and now all that is wanted is the blushing bride – of whom there is no sign. Worried that the longer the wait, the drunker and more aggressive Ashmont will become, Ripley tries to find her – only to come upon her when she’s half-way out the library window declaring her intention to take a breath of air in Kensington Gardens. In her wedding dress. In the rain. It’s obvious Olympia has been crying and he can also smell the strong whiff of brandy about her – but before he can stop her, she’s out of the window and running away. Ripley tells himself he shouldn’t be the one to hare off in pursuit – she’s not his fiancée after all – but Ashmont put him in charge of ensuring the wedding goes smoothly, and it can’t do that without a bride. After a brief hesitation, he follows her and the pair embarks upon the journey if not quite from hell, then one in which pretty much everything that can go wrong – does.
Ripley tries to persuade Olympia to return for the ceremony, but when it becomes clear she has no intention of doing so, he agrees to escort her to her aunt’s home in Twickenham. Ever the optimist, Ripley tells himself that a few hours shouldn’t make too much difference. Olympia’s disappearance will be dismissed as yet another of the ridiculous pranks he and his friends are known for; they’ll all have a laugh, Olympia will have sobered up and the wedding will go ahead – merely a few hours later than advertised. Following a cramped hackney ride, a disastrous boat trip on the Thames, a heated altercation with a ruffian about a dog and an accident that leaves Ripley almost unable to walk, the couple arrives, only to discover that Aunt Delia is from home. So instead, Ripley takes Olympia to the home of his favourite aunt, the widowed Lady Charles Ancaster. By this time, of course, his and Olympia’s absence will have been widely noted, his two best friends are likely hard on their heels and Ashmont will no doubt be thinking the worst.
And, for Ripley, things are worse. How on earth he managed to overlook the quick-witted, sometimes acerbic, self-deprecating and utterly captivating young woman now travelling with him is beyond him. Olympia is lovely, clever, funny, more than able to hold her own in their battle of wits – and Ripley is well and truly smitten. But she’s not his and can’t be – Ashmont is his friend and Olympia is hisintended bride. And while she’s perfect duchess material Ripley becomes increasingly certain she shouldn’t become Ashmont’s duchess. Yet how can he possibly contemplate stooping so low as to steal her out from under his friend’s nose? He’s a scoundrel and a reprobate with a reputation as black as pitch – but he’s nonetheless a gentleman and no matter what debaucheries he may have indulged in in the past, this is one line he cannot – will not – cross. But oh, how he wants to.
While Ripley learns that Olympia has always been seriously underappreciated and that even her own view of herself – as nothing more than practical, proper and boring – is very skewed, Olympia is discovering the real Ripley, charming, kind, witty, perceptive and increasingly – and unnervingly – attractive. Good, boring, practical girls like her aren’t attracted to rakes, but it’s impossible for her to deny that’s exactly what she’s feeling. She’s surprised when Ripley describes her as ‘dashing’ and ‘exciting’ or being too clever and lively for the company she keeps, and tries to tell him she’s none of those things – but he won’t have it.
“Bolting from your wedding… Climbing over the wall. Falling out of the boat. Whatever else one might say about you – and I’m not sure what to say, frankly – boring isn’t on the list.”
One of the great things about road-trip romances is that they require the hero and heroine to be in close proximity for almost all the story and Ms. Chase really makes the most of this. The couple have many delightful, awkward, often very funny conversations en route, during which Ripley demonstrates much good-natured wit and perspicacity (and a surprising love of romance novels!), while Olympia tries to maintain a kind of poker-faced indifference and fails spectacularly in the face of Ripley’s adorably relentless optimism. I normally find relationships that develop over short time-spans to be unsatisfying, but that’s not the case here, as the author manages to imbue a romance that develops over just three days with the same depth of understanding and connection as one that evolves over a longer period of time. In fact, as Olympia herself says later in the book:
“It’s dawned on me that you and I have spent more time together than most couples do before they’re wed. And so we must know each other rather better than most.”
Given the restrictions placed upon interactions between unmarried men and women at this time, I’m fairly sure she’s right!
The thorny issue of male honour is the biggest road-block on the path to the HEA, something most heroines see as ridiculous and pig-headed – and I suspect many modern readers will agree with that assessment. But really, it’s more than that. Ripley is genuinely fond of Ashmont; they grew up together and he doesn’t want to hurt his friend, but he also knows that Ashmont will make Olympia unhappy, and he can’t bear the thought of the woman he loves being miserable. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, but ultimately, is prepared to stand up and fight for what he wants; and his determination to do the right thing is admirable.
A Duke in Shining Armor is a thoroughly entertaining, low-angst read that’s bursting at the seams with humour, warmth and intelligence. The focus is squarely on Ripley and Olympia and their growing relationship, and there is a nicely drawn cast of secondary characters, including the other two Dis-Graces, Blackwood – who appears to be estranged from his wife (Ripley’s sister) – and Ashmont, who manages to be immature, hot-headed and strangely endearing all at once. I’m looking forward to both their stories in future books and also to learning more of Ripley’s Aunt Julia, who, it seems, has an unhappy love story in her past.
If you love character-driven romances, a charming, sexy hero with a cracking sense of humour and a heroine who can keep up with him every step of the way, A Duke in Shining Armor is sure to delight.