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Biweekly marriage proposals from men who can’t see beyond her (admittedly breathtaking) looks are starting to get on Lady Clara Fairfax’s nerves. Desperate to be something more than ornamental, she escapes to her favorite charity. When a child is in trouble, she turns to tall, dark, and annoying barrister Oliver Radford.
Though he’s unexpectedly found himself in line to inherit a dukedom, Radford’s never been part of fashionable society, and the blonde beauty, though not entirely bereft of brains, isn’t part of his plans. But Clara overwhelms even his infallible logic, and when wedlock looms, all he can do is try not to lose his head over her.
It’s an inconvenient marriage by ordinary standards, but these two are far from ordinary. Can the ton’s most adored heiress and London’s most difficult bachelor fall victim to their own unruly desires?
This fourth book in Loretta Chase’s Dressmaker series takes up the story of Lady Clara Fairfax, who has been a recurring secondary character since the first book, . Clara is the most sought-after young lady in London – possibly in the whole of England. She’s beautiful, of excellent lineage and well-dowered, but is suffocating in her life of seeming perfection. As readers of the previous books will already know, Clara is much more than a pretty face; she’s intelligent, witty and wants more from life than to be married to someone who wants her merely as a decorative accessory and a convenient source of money. Yet it seems that is what she is to be consigned to; brought up to be a fitting helpmeet to a duke, she inwardly seething with frustration, rejecting marriage proposals on a weekly basis from many hopeful gentlemen who can’t and don’t want to see the true woman beneath the gorgeous exterior.
Clara is determined, however, to do at least one useful thing in her life before she is forever consigned to the life of boredom enjoyed by society wives. Through her association with the Noirot sisters (heroines of the previous three books), Clara has become a patron of a charity which trains and finds work for young women who might otherwise have ended up on the streets. One of the girls is concerned for her younger brother, who has stopped attending school; she believes that he may have been enticed or forced back into working for a criminal gang. Clara is determined to find the boy and restore him to his sister – but knows she will not be able to do that without help.
Oliver “Raven” Radford is one of the foremost barristers in the country, and, if gossip is to be believed, one of its sharpest-tongued, most offensive men. He doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, his brain is always several steps of everyone else’s and he says what he thinks when he thinks it and doesn’t give a damn for others’ opinions of him. His current work is a prosecution of a pauper farm (a place where poorhouses sent their ‘excess’ children) – and it’s to him – as a friend of her brothers’ – that Clara turns to for assistance.
At first, Radford is inclined to dismiss Clara and her idea of rescuing the boy, believing her to be just another society lady whose beauty far outstrips her brains. But Clara very quickly corrects his assumptions when she shows herself perfectly able to keep pace with the speed at which his mind works as well as to trade him barb for barb and quip for quip. He’s the first man not to have fallen at her feet, and much as Clara finds him infuriating and is quite able to sympathise with the number of people who probably want to throttle him, she also likes that he isn’t – or doesn’t seem – affected by her looks. The first part of the story is a sheer delight as the reader watches these two strong, clever people dance around each other, sizing each other up. It’s full of amazingly witty banter and bitingly sarcastic exchanges that are really several chapters’ worth of foreplay – and nobody does that better than Loretta Chase. She also brilliantly conveys the depth of Clara’s frustration with her life and the way everyone else sees her, culminating in an impassioned outburst to Radford: “You don’t know what it’s like to be scolded for reading too much and knowing too much – to be taught to hide your intelligence, because otherwise you’ll frighten the gentlemen away – to stifle your opinions, because ladies aren’t to have any opinions of their own, but must always defer to men.”
Her frequent witty asides and thoughts are also a wonderful commentary on the class system and on the position of women in society:
He was a man, an attractive man if one overlooked the obnoxiousness. But women had to overlook men’s personality flaws else nobody would ever wed and/or reproduce and the human race would come to an end.
Clara and Radford are clearly made for each other, matching each other in intelligence and determination, and the chemistry between them is searing. Clara has finally found her perfect mate – and now all that has to be done is to convince her parents of that fact, a challenge to which Radford, as the foremost barrister of his age, rises with aplomb. The second part of the book changes gear somewhat, with the couple having to work through the numerous adjustments that are necessary to adapt to married life. On top of that, a sudden death in the family means that Radford has to face the prospect of a major and unwanted life change while he’s also having to deal with certain members of the criminal class who are determined to do away with him.
Both protagonists are attractive, engaging characters – even Radford who, as is frequently pointed out, has a talent for being offensive and obnoxious. Those he may be, but he’s also drop-dead sexy, fiercely intelligent, funny and, when it comes to Clara, protective without being stifling. This is the 1830s, so he doesn’t suddenly become a raging feminist, but there is the definite acknowledgement on his part that his wife has a mind of her own that she is capable of putting to good use; and Clara, while pleased that her husband recognises this, remains sensible and doesn’t suddenly rush off and do stupidly out of character things.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dukes Prefer Blondes (even though the title has little to do with the story, as Radford isn’t a duke, and while he doesn’t deny that Clara is beautiful, I suspect that the colour of her hair didn’t bother him in the slightest!), but I can’t deny that I had a few issues with the pacing of the story which has knocked my final grade down a bit. The first part is undoubtedly the stronger, positively fizzing with energy as the sparks fly between Clara and Radford like there’s no tomorrow. Once the couple is married, that energy dissipates a little (although not completely) although I appreciated the way in which the author explores the early days of a marriage between two such strong-minded people, especially in the light of Radford’s changing family circumstances. They continue to bicker, but there’s a new understanding to their exchanges, and a sense that both of them are strongly invested in their marriage and prepared to make it work.
In spite of that criticism, Dukes Prefer Blondes is a treat for fans of Ms Chase’s writing and fans of historical romance in general. It’s wonderfully entertaining, with some of the finest banter I’ve ever read, and yet there’s more to it than that in the author’s razor-sharp observations of what it’s like to be a woman of the upper class, and her keen observation of the dress and social customs of the time. It’s a great read, and one I’m recommending highly.