The Duchess Hunt by Jennifer Haymore
Dear Ms Haymore:
I’d hoped to like The Duchess Hunt. I enjoyed the first two chapters you released with your novella The Devil’s Pearl. And years ago, I read and liked your debut novel A Hint of Wicked. But The Duchess Hunt didn’t do it for me. The hero’s behavior was, at times, decidedly unheroic and his motivations, a mystery. And when you resolved your protagonist’s problems by introducing a developmentally disabled man, I was ready to toss the book. However, I’d read three-quarters of the book at that point and decided to soldier on.
Sarah Osborne, at eight, moves with her father, a gardener, to Ironwood Park, an estate owned by the Duke of Trent. In her first week there, she, while chasing a butterfly, becomes entangled in the thorns of a blackberry bush. She is rescued by a tall boy with “dark blonde hair” and “crystal-green eyes.” Simon cuts her free and takes her to Ironwood Park to have the housekeeper there tend her scratches. Sarah is terrified when she realizes the boy is the Duke of Trent and the woman he’s just introduced her to is his mother, the Duchess. The Duchess is immediately taken with Sarah however–the woman has six sons–and decides on the spot Sarah will join her sons in their studies. (This seemed far-fetched to me, but I’ve encountered less likely plots before, so I read on.)
Sixteen years later, Sarah is a maid in the house but not just any maid. She “had embedded herself so deeply into life at Ironwood Park that she sometimes knew things that occurred here that none of the rest of them did.” Simon spends most of his time away from Ironwood Park. He’s not been home in three years but when his mother disappears, he returns.
Sarah is and always has been in love with Simon. The last time he was home, they shared a passionate kiss that knocked her socks off.
Simon, for the past three years, has been guiltily in lust with Sarah.
His body came instantly alive at the sight of her, even after all this time. Even under the circumstances. Lust. Desire. Need. All of it barreled through him in a hot rush.
Damn, she was more beautiful than ever.
When he’d last come home to Ironwood Park, he hadn’t been able to keep his hands off her. God knew he’d tried.
Her mouth caressing his, the feel of her body under his hands…It had been three years. He should have forgotten all of it by now.
But how could he forget the sweetest lips he’d ever tasted? How could he forget the curve of her bottom, the feel of her soft, plump breasts under his hands?
How could he forget that he’d taken advantage of an innocent? Someone who worked in his house, under his employ? How could he forgive himself for crossing a line he never, ever should have crossed?
Why is Simon so freaked out about this kiss? Because the Duke loathes scandal. His parents caused endless nasty gossip when his father was alive and his brother Luke is widely known as a dissolute rake. Simon’s life work (he’s twenty-nine) has been to improve his family’s reputation. He believes his desire for Sarah has and can only lead to bad behavior on his part.
A relationship between him and Sarah was impossible for a variety of reasons that would be too exhausting to explore. He was a member of the English aristocracy, which at times was prone to vice and debauchery, and he know what happened when men like him formed liaisons with women like Sarah. Nothing good could come of bringing her into his bed.
Furthermore it is time for Simon to marry a “suitable woman” and he plans to choose one this season.
Simon sends his brothers off doing any number of things to find their missing mother. He returns to London, bringing with him his youngest sibling and only sister Esme and Sarah, who is to act as her companion. (She protests she’s not of genteel birth and thus unsuitable. He says he doesn’t care.)
Once in London, Simon pursues a betrothal with Georgina Stanley, a pretty vapid blonde. He has myriad conversations with Sarah about how much he wants to make love to her but he knows it would be wrong. They run into each other in dark corners of the house, kiss madly, then break apart, rent with lust. Finally, Sarah, has had enough. One night, after Simon has had a particularly trying night, Sarah comes to his room at dawn and says, “Let me soothe you, Your Grace.” Simon, a whiz at subtext, realize she’s come to offer him her virginity. He rebuffs her for about two minutes–“No Sarah… That is too great a gift.“–and then caves. This love scene has several icky parts.
1) Sarah keeps calling him “Your Grace” even as he’s fingering her.
2) He asks her if he’s the first man to see her naked and when she nods, he says, “Another gift then.” (Is he keeping a list?)
3) He puts her hand on his hard-on and tells her “It hurts when it’s like this…. There’s only one way to soothe it.” (This is news to me.)
4) When they are interrupted by a servant knocking on the door, Simon must leave. As he goes he says “Soon, Sarah. Soon I’ll make you mine.” (His what? Doxy? Mistress? Hook-up? He’s sure she’s not wife material.)
He does get around to making her his the night before his betrothal to Miss Stanley is to become official. He doesn’t tell Sarah that, however. He just says to her,
What if I told you that tonight was be the last night I could come to you? The last night we could be together? Would you still offer me this gift?”
After this scene I never really warmed to Simon again.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what happened to the missing matriarch? I regret to say, I don’t know. Her story meanders along, is confusing and never resolved. The Duchess Hunt is the start of a new series called The House of Trent. Given there are seven Trent progeny, the Duchess’s whereabouts is unlikely to discovered any time soon.
I disliked Simon’s selfish behavior. I hated the way in which Simon is able to free himself from Mis Stanley. Miss Stanley’s father, a miscreant, threatens to ruin the Trents if Simon doesn’t make his daughter a duchess. Simon’s trapped until a deus ex machina occurs in the form of an “idiot.” I’m hoping this was indeed the term used at that time. This discomfiting contrivance bothered me greatly.
On the upside, Ms. Haymore writes well and, with the exception of the first sex scene, her plentiful love-scenes are pleasantly hot. Sarah isn’t a ninny or a maidenly moppet. No one has sex in a library. And, thank the gods, there’s no treacly epilogue.
I can’t recommend The Duchess Hunt. I give it a C-.