REVIEW: The Way to a Duke’s Heart by Caroline Linden
Dear Ms. Linden,
I’ve read all three books in your The Truth about the Duke trilogy and never much cared about what happened to said peer, the (unchallenged) Duke of Durham. The guy seems like a heel. On his deathbed–and estranged from his eldest son, Charlie, the hero of The Way to a Duke’s Heart–he confesses he (the dying dad) is a possible bigamist. Prior to tying the knot with his Duchess, the long dead mother of his three sons, he’d married and pretty much lost first interest in and then contact with another woman. The Duke shares his big secret because, in the months prior to leaving this mortal coil, he was being blackmailed by an unknown person threatening to expose this earlier union. His middle son, Edward (the hero of One Night in London, reviewed here by Jane), tells the wrong woman about their family troubles–dubbed the Durham Dilemma by the press–and Charlie and his brothers may be, depending on the truth about the Duke, branded as illegitimate and left without a titles, fortunes, and properties.
I was looking forward to this book; in both the first and second books in the series (the second, and my favorite, Blame it on Bath, is reviewed here by Janet) Charlie is the man. He’s sexy, selfish, and clearly waiting for destiny to smack him upside the head. Charlie, like so many Regency-type rakes, suffers from evil dad/eldest son syndrome; he did not get enough love as a small child. His dad bullied him and was unreasonable; by the time Charlie became old enough to draw from the family’s coffers, he tossed aside his father’s expectations, ignored the call of his birthrate, and began bedding widows and wantons nightly. When his legacy is first challenged, Charlie, who refused to come to his father’s deathbed, tells his brothers the Durham dilemma is NOT MY PROBLEM. However, after Edward and Gerard (bro #2) find connubial bliss they tell Charlie to step up to the plate: they’re, um, busy. Even if his brothers weren’t in shag heaven, they’d have a point. Charlie is the putative Duke and it is his title, now at risk, that most defines the family. Charlie, somewhat ambivalently, agrees at the end of Blame it on Bath to leave his hedonistic life in London and head off to discover their father’s blackmailer.
As The Way to a Duke’s Heart begins, Charlie has come to Bath in search of one Hiram Scott whom Gerard has identified as the man who sent their father the loathsome letters. Charlie doesn’t want to be there and the job he faces overwhelms him. His leg hurts from a drunken fall down the stairs and, to top it off, on his way into procuring the best suite in the best hotel in town, some chit muttered, loudly enough for all to hear, that he, the (hopefully) Duke of Durham, looked “indolent.” Charlie checks into his suite, finally waves off the officious inn-keeper, and assesses the task before him.
He caught sight of the leather satchel on the writing desk across the room. In it were all the documents and correspondence from the investigators and the solicitors relating to that damned Durham Dilemma, as well as his father’s confessional letter. He turned his head away, not wanting to look at it. He’d forced himself to bring it all to Bath, but just thinking about it left him angry at his father, irked at his brothers, and deeply, privately, alarmed that his entire life now hung by a thread. If rumors in London—and Edward’s expensive solicitor—could be believed, Durham’s distant cousin Augustus was about to file a competing claim to the dukedom, alleging that Charlie could not prove he was the sole legitimate heir. If the House of Lords upheld that claim, the title and all its trappings would be lost—at best, held in abeyance until proof was found, or at worst, irrevocably awarded to Augustus. Either outcome would effectively ruin him.
Charlie hoped to high heaven the answer to all their troubles could be found in Bath. And even more, he hoped he was capable of finding it before the House of Lords heard his petition.
He let his head drop back against the chair and closed his eyes. How ironic that the first time anyone expected great things of him, the stakes were so high. Right now he didn’t want to think of anything beyond his dinner and the glass of wine in his hand. If the lady from downstairs could see him now, she would surely think him the most indolent, useless fellow on earth.
A smile touched his lips, picturing her defiant expression when she realized he’d heard her disdainful remark. She was sorry he’d overheard, but not sorry at all for saying it. What a prudish bit of skirt. No doubt she had a collection of prayer books and doted on her brood of small dogs.
Charlie is, naturally, wrong about the woman who dismissed him. She’s neither a prude nor does she dote on much of anything. Tessa Neville had her heart broken years ago by a lout and now is focused on managing her brother, Viscount Marchmont’s, business affairs. She’s a whiz with investments–numerical columns being so much more trustworthy than those of men–and has come to Somerset to investigate a possible investment: a canal partially owned and being aggressively marketed to her family by Hiram Scott. Tessa has a bad attitude and a chip on her shoulder–she just can’t believe how closed-minded men are and don’t get her started on the inability of women to vote! Frankly, she’s pretty cranky and, for me, not in a good way. I wouldn’t call her a bitch–she’s no Scarlett O’Hara–but she lacks the ability, most of the time, to sit back and smell the sulfur. Just seeing the rakish Duke of Durham with his wicked smile, his lordly–but charming–manner, and his bodacious bod puts her in a bad mood.
I liked him but not her. Tessa is, for her era, a thoroughly modern woman. That’s cool. What’s not so cool is that her asserted skill set–brilliant, able to discern waste from genuine want, savvy about where to park a pound or thousand–isn’t displayed in her actions. She’s bamboozled by Scott–he’s trying to lure investors to a canal with a problem–and her people skills are poor. When the men–those who run the canal she’s interested in–are forced to invite her to a “let us tell you what a deal we have for you while getting you drunk” dinner, Tessa is useless and is, in fact, rescued by Charlie who doesn’t give a strut about the canal. Additionally, halfway through the tale, she–who has thus far lusted for Charlie within the constraints of her time–suddenly finds her inner-bad girl and behaves in ways that don’t ring true for her.
[spoiler] (I have a hard time believing Tessa’s first response, when faced with adversity, would be “Do me.”)[/spoiler]
Tessa is nice to her traveling companion, the always worried Eugenie, and she clearly cares for her brother and her bossy older sister. But this kindness in her didn’t balance out her impatience with virtually everyone around her. I’m sure I’d be constantly pissed off if everyone treated me as lesser because I was female–I’m not saying she’s not believable. She’s just not very pleasant a lot of the time. And when she is pleasant, it’s because she’s lusting after Charlie or lustfully rolling around with Charlie. I’d have enjoyed her far more if she, on her own, was more engaging and less carping.
Charlie, on the other hand, is a fetching hero. He, in the start of the series, is portrayed as a lazy, selfish cad. And, not only is that initially true, it’s how he sees himself. But once his brothers force him to act and he heads to Bath to investigate Hiram Scott, Charlie changes. He begins to push himself to think, to work, and to sit around reading really dull parish registers. He initially checks out Tessa because he thinks she may be in cahoots with Hiram Scott, but once he realizes she’s not, he puts a lovely sort of effort into figuring her out. He finds her intelligence and direct manner incomprehensibly alluring; the scenes where he works to help her are sexy and sweet. Here, he’s just put bluebells Tessa picked into a vase for her. She’s startled he’d do such a thing.
She looked up at him in wonder. Dark hair tumbled forward over his brow after his jaunt into the brook. Up close she could see the faint shadow of stubble beginning on his jaw, and smell the crisp scent of his shirtsleeves. That signet ring on his right hand flashed as he pushed the stems deeper into the glass. Her hand felt warm, remembering the clasp of his fingers around hers. “That’s quite a lot of effort for wildflowers,” she said before her brain could rein in her tongue.
He looked up from the flowers. “Not if they are dear to you.”
She forced her gaze back to the bluebells. “They are just wildflowers,” she said softly. “Small and insignificant and common.”
He was quiet, and she stole a glance at his face. He had that probing look again, as if he were trying to make out something essential about her. She was accustomed to seeing that sort of look on people’s faces, but Lord Gresham’s expression was . . . different. He didn’t seem confounded or alarmed or even dismayed by what he saw in her, but curious. Surprised. Almost . . . intrigued.
“No bit of beauty is small or insignificant,” he murmured. “And as for common . . . I’ve never seen the like.” He touched one dainty flower head, less wilted than the rest, and turned it up toward her. “Don’t belittle it. Marvel, instead, that such a creation sprang up out of a common field, with no one around to appreciate it until you walked by.”
“And now I have pulled it out by the roots,” she said.
He grinned, and the air between them lightened noticeably. “Only to share it with others. The bluebells would have wilted anyway, in a day or two. Now they will have brought joy and beauty to others before they do.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “A lovely way of putting it.” She tipped her face up to him again. “Thank you for the lemonade.”
“It was my pleasure.”
Charlie enlivens Tessa and it’s lovely to watch him do so. The better he gets to know her, the more he falls for her, prickles and all. I was happy for him because she made him happy. Tessa does become more pleasant with Charlie’s support: she’s thrilled to be with a man who not only doesn’t belittle her brain and her focus on finances, but who celebrates both. Tessa doesn’t instantly become compliant and doe-eyed once she becomes romantically involved with Charlie. She’s sure she’s not the girl for him–bluestockings apparently, in Tessa’s world, can’t manage being Duchesses. Charlie pursues her–despite her brains, this is yet another area in which he is smarter than she. This tension is resolved easily and prosaically.
The same could be said about the overarching question of Charlie’s legitimacy. In order for Charlie and his brothers to be the legal sons of the Duke of Durham, Charlie must find proof the first woman his father married was dead before he married his second. Charlie also wants to find out, because he’s so peeved, who the hell sent his father the blackmail letters. Charlie’s pursuit of the first issue–dead or not–is completed with little excitement. Consequently, the last third of The Way to a Duke’s Heart is spent with Charlie working doggedly to unmask the source of the letters. When he does so, he is shocked. I, not so much so. That story line is flat and freighted with “casual sex (with married women) is wrong” morality.
Ultimately the truth about the Duke dissatisfied me in this book and those that preceded it. There just wasn’t enough there there around which to build three books and 1150 pages!
If you are looking for an exciting, diverting, interesting historical, I can’t recommend The Way to a Duke’s Heart. It’s well-written and has a winning hero, yes. However, its strident heroine and mundane plot make for ho hum reading. I give it a C+.