Rose: Having enjoyed the previous books in Neville’s Wild Quartet, I was looking forward to Julian’s story, The Duke of Dark Desires (despite the unappealing alliterative title) and was not disappointed.
Janine: Although Julian wasn’t my favorite of the characters in this series after the way he tried to come between Damian and Cynthia in the previous book, I too was interested in The Duke of Dark Desires. I’ve read eight of Neville’s novels (there’s some alliteration) and one of her novellas, and the novella was the only one that disappointed me. That’s a truly impressive track record for any author to have with me. Rose and I decided to review this book together.
Rose: Julian Fortescue grew up as a very distant relation of the Duke of Denford. He did not get along with his mother’s second husband, an abusive man who took an instant dislike to his strong-willed stepson. By the age of 15, he was on his own, and he later became an art dealer. Through a series of untimely deaths among the Fortescue men, Julian inherits the dukedom, though he has little interest in his title or responsibilities, and much prefers to continue in the art world.
Julian is haunted by an enormous error in judgment he made early in his career: at the age of twenty, he was supposed to get half of the priceless art collection of the Marquis de Falleron in exchange for helping spirit the Marquis and his family out of France during the Terror. Though Julian had doubts about the plan and his role, he went ahead with it, giving the Marquis his word that his family will be safe.
But Julian, his Foreign Office contact, and the de Fallerons were betrayed. While Julian was able to escape from an ambush with the entire collection (stowed away in Belgium for the time being), his contact was killed and the Marquis and his family were arrested for treason and soon sent to the guillotine. A guilt-ridden Julian was present at the execution of the two eldest daughters, Jeanne-Louise and Marie-Thérèse. The youngest, Antoinette, was not there, and he assumed she died in prison before she could be executed.
The story opens nine years later, with a woman arriving at Fortescue House seeking revenge. This is not Antoinette, but Miss Jane Grey, née Jeanne-Louise de Falleron. At her parents’ request, Jeanne had posed as the family’s English governess, while her younger sisters each took the place of the one nearest in age. Jane, as she now thinks of herself, does not know the particulars of what her father had planned, but she does know that he put his trust in a Mr. Fortescue, who then betrayed him. She intends to seek employment with the Duke of Denford, identify which Mr. Fortescue is responsible for her family’s deaths, and kill him.
Jane is fortunate, as Julian’s mother has recently sailed for America with her new husband, leaving her three daughters in the charge of their completely disinterested half-brother. Although her background is somewhat dubious and her suitability for the position not quite what it should be, Julian is attracted to Jane and hires her as governess to the much younger sisters whom he barely knows.
The title of this book is, in my opinion, misleading. Julian is dark in looks but not so much in character, and I saw it as Jane’s story much more than Julian’s.
Janine: I saw Julian as having a hint of darkness to his character, especially earlier on in the novel, but I agree that a more appropriate title for the book would be The Governess of Dark Desires, LOL — since it’s Jane/Jeanne-Louise who arrives at Fortescue House intent on murder.
Rose: That would have been more fitting, but I guess Dukes take precedence in book titles, too.
Jane has not had an easy life. She lost her family, her home, and the only life she had known and was soon after forced into a sexual relationship with the man who arrested them. Mathieu is an army captain who figures out her true identity and gives her a choice between becoming his mistress or losing her life. At fifteen, she learns to survive by her wits and by pleasing men whom she does not necessarily like.
She suffers from immense guilt for living when her family didn’t, for denying them in their last moments together, and for what she did afterwards. She knows that the world will label her a whore, and she herself never thinks of what happened to her as rape: she refers to it as prostitution and to herself as a mistress or a whore, and to Mathieu as her seducer and even her lover.
That Jane’s perception is skewed by guilt and by the social norms of the time is obvious, but it also allows her to think of herself as a survivor rather than a victim, with her choices necessary to survive, keep herself safe, and later move up in the world. When her first protector is killed in battle, she becomes the mistress of a politician, and it matters to her that it was a man she wanted to be with.
Although Jane has been marked by her experiences, they do not define her. She is not apologetic about enjoying sex and wanting a man in her life, and understands very well how to use her effect on men to her advantage. I thought she was a wonderful and admirable heroine.
Janine: I loved Jane. She had survived so much and kept herself strong through all her traumas and ordeals that I couldn’t help but see her as a survivor also. She has spine and wit and a lot of determination. What a great heroine she is, and you’re right, there is so much to admire in her.
Rose: That Jane likes the company of men and is attracted to Julian does not mean that she gives in to his attempts to seduce her. She has her own agenda and a relationship with Julian is a distraction she does not need. Julian, however, is completely under her spell and while he understands that no means no, he flirts constantly and makes every effort to get Jane to change her mind.
As I noted, this is really more Jane’s story, and Julian’s storyline is less interesting, though not without substance. Both Jane and Julian grow closer to his sisters. Maria, Fenella and Laura Osbourne are not plot moppets, and each has a distinctive personality and contribution to the story. I especially liked Fenella, who lacks her sisters’ beauty but more than makes up for it in personality.
Janine: Yes! So often kids in books suffer from precocious cuteness, but that wasn’t the case here. The rebellious Fenella was my favorite too.
Rose: For Julian, having his sisters in his life means that he finally has a family to be a part of, something he doesn’t know how to deal with; for Jane, the girls are a reminder of all that she has lost, which is bittersweet. She tries to help them become the young women than she and her own sisters never got the chance to be, and her relationship with them allows her to be an older sister once again.
Janine: There was bittersweetness to Jane’s observations about the girls and about the way Julian initially takes having sisters for granted, as well as to her lessons to Julian in what it means to be a duke—something she knows because her father was a marquis. In a way, I really enjoyed that bittersweetness. It isn’t common for romances to acknowledge how tragic life can be, and seeing Jane survive and find love again was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
Rose: Both Jane and Julian are conducting investigations: Jane questions the servants in her search for the man she knows only as Mr. Fortescue, while Julian is trying to find out who betrayed him and the de Fallerons and whether anyone at the Foreign Office is culpable. He is also preparing to bring the Falleron collection out of Belgium, which is dangerous – there are people willing to kill for it – and he must decide what to do with the artwork that he loves but recognizes that he is not truly entitled to.
Janine: I loved the dramatic irony in their parallel investigations. Jane was searching for Julian, who was right under her nose, and Julian was searching for the betrayer, unaware that Jane had survived and that she held him responsible for betraying her family.
Rose: Julian, for all his attempts at seducing Jane, is a good and honorable man and nothing like the previous men in her life. He respects her boundaries, and while he knows that she is keeping secrets from him, he doesn’t push.
Janine: I saw Julian in more complicated terms for a good part of the book. He wasn’t above flirting with Cynthia, whom he’d tried to steal from Damian, in front of her husband, and he wasn’t looking to deepen his relationship with his sisters. He was irresponsible when he hired Jane to be their governess intending to make her his mistress. The job interview was cursory at best.
He’d also, as a young man, let his ambitions trump his honor when he reassured the marquis the Falleron family would be safe despite some niggles on that score. Of course, he lived to regret that dearly. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Julian was morally ambiguous, but I read him as having some flaws he later overcame or made up for and I appreciated that.
As for respecting Jane’s boundaries, I was impressed that this relationship between an employer and employee didn’t squick me out much. I felt some initial uneasiness when Julian installed Jane in the room adjoining his with only a locked door between them, but that was mostly allayed when he gave her the key. I think that if she’d truly been a governess, I would have been more put off, but she had a wicked knife stashed in her room, and was as much a danger to him as he was to her.
I agree he didn’t push her to reveal her secrets, knowing he had secrets of his own, and that was one of several things that made me really like him, things that also include his growing affection and sense of responsibility for his sisters, and the way he was there for Jane in times both good and bad, ready to offer comfort when she had had a hard day.
Rose: While Jane’s background, and to a lesser extent Julian’s, is tragic, the story has plenty of lighter moments.
Janine: Yes, there were some nice moments of levity. This was an angsty read overall, especially for Neville, but the emotions felt real and earned.
Rose: A secondary plot involves Oliver Bream, an artist who has appeared in several previous books in the series and is supposed to give the Misses Osbourne drawing lessons. Oliver has a tendency to immediately fall in (and soon after, out) of love with every woman he meets, and has no idea how to manage his career. He finally meets the perfect woman for him in this book.
Janine: That was a nice touch and I was so glad that Oliver got a happy ending too.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Neville’s novels sometimes veer into unnecessary suspense and melodrama near their conclusion. I do think in this case the danger was real and necessary, but once again it read a bit too over the top to me.
Janine: I didn’t feel that it was over the top. At that point in the story emotions were running high with good reason so it read fine to me.
Rose: I’m also not sure that I bought Jane’s inability to recognize that Julian was the most likely candidate to be Mr. Fortescue for as long as she did, and the machinations that resulted in her family’s deaths were rather far-fetched and explained via a bit too much info-dumping.
Janine: It was a bit of a stretch that Jane would not recognize Julian as her father’s Mr. Fortescue for so long but I read some of that as denial. She didn’t want to see that it was him. I agree the machinations were far fetched, but the scene in which they were revealed did not feel info-dumpy to me.
A bigger issue for me is that the plot depends on coincidences of timing. That Jane would show up in England at the same time as Julian’s sisters, and Julian would decide to bring the Falleron collection to England at the same time, causing the betrayer to take part in the story as well, when it had been nine years since the deaths of Jane’s parents and sisters, isn’t all that likely. Still, I loved the drama that resulted from all that, and as Jia says, every novel is allowed one gimme. This was the one here.
Rose: Minor issues aside, I enjoyed this book and found it a very satisfying conclusion to the series. The Duke of Dark Desires is a recommended read for me.
Janine: It’s a recommended read for me too! I was going to give it a B+ but I’ve talked myself into a B+/A-.
Rose: I had it as a B+ at first, but I think B+/A- is a better reflection of my reading experience, too.