Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC of this from Pocket Books through NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. I should also add that by the time I was granted the ARC, I'd already bought the book in pre-order, because with one horrible exception, she writes awesome books, and is on my automatic pre-order list.
Once again, the cover image has little to nothing to do with the contents of the book, although the cover model is at least a redhead, like the heroine. I don't think she wears a bright orange dress and frolics around on the grass at any point, though, and the dress is not even a little bit period appropriate. It does have a nice bright colour that catches the eye, which I suppose is what the marketing department was going for.
But what is the book about, I hear you ask? Olivia Johnston is on her third assumed identity, having stolen a series of letters from her former employer, now Lady Elizabeth de Grey (see That Scandalous Summer. She's now trying to infiltrate the household of the Duke of Marwick, her former employer's new brother-in-law in order to get further incriminating evidence to help her blackmail Baron Bertram, the man who's made her live in fear for years. Bertram was one of the duchess of Marwick's former lovers, and Olivia has heard Marwick kept detailed dossiers on all his political and personal rivals. Hoping to get a post as a housemaid, she has an impressive reference from her friend Amanda, who recently became a Viscountess through an advantageous marriage. Yet the duke's household is in such disarray that the desperate and distraught butler convinces Olivia to take the post as housekeeper instead. Olivia is elated, thinking this will make it all the easier to search through the duke's papers for blackmail material. Her optimism doesn't last long.
The reason that Marwick's household is in such disorder is that Alastair de Grey, the duke, has holed himself up in his private rooms, nursing dangerous thoughts of vengeance against the men who cuckolded him with his now dead wife. He knows that if he leaves the house, he will murder each of the men who slept with and conspired towards his own political downfall with his faithless wife. In the months since she was found dead in a hotel room from a suspected opium overdose, the duke has become more and more distanced from his former life, driving away all who previously cared for him, including his brother (again see the previous book). Most of his servants have left, and the only retainers left have little to no work ethic and flirt, gossip and generally do as they please around the house. Marwick doesn't care, he just wants to drink himself into oblivion and forget.
Olivia discovers that in order to search the house without anyone catching her, she needs to whip the staff into shape. After having no luck finding any incriminating evidence elsewhere in the house, she concludes that the papers must be in the duke's private quarters, where no one is allowed to enter. When she first attempts to lure the duke out for a spell, he throws a bottle at her, but she refuses to be cowed. He then proceeds to try to fire her, as well as intimidate her physically. Olivia stands her ground, and because she's come to admire the man Marwick once was through all the correspondence and notes of his she's already searched, she can't help but try to provoke him out of his hardened shell of grief and rage.
One of the things Duran does better than most romance writers out there, is character development. Her characters are never one-sided and simple, there are always flaws and depth and complexity and usually quite a lot of angst. With Alastair de Grey, she's possibly created her most unpleasant character yet. In That Scandalous Summer, he was pretty much straight up the villain, doing everything he could to prevent his brother and Elizabeth from being able to marry. He starts out pretty villainous here, as well. Olivia gets the job as his new housekeeper because the last one quite when the duke threw a shoe at her. His valet has abandoned his duties and mainly tries to canoodle with the maids. The butler seems to be drowning his sorrows. He is none too pleased at the interfering young woman who keeps intruding in his chambers, and not only refuses to accept that he's fired her, but shows no respect for his station and constantly argues with him.
Marwick's a deeply unlikely romantic hero, yet Duran makes us sympathise with him, as he was clearly so deeply devastated by his wife's betrayal. He loved her and thought she'd be his perfect mate, and she didn't just cheat on him with multiple men, but revealed insider secrets to his political rivals, undermining his career. His rage and wish for vengeance is natural, and from both the previous book and his former reputation in this book, we are allowed to see what a great and influential man he was before his collapse. Now he's cruel, cold and callous, but the true culprit here is clearly the dead duchess. It's not just his heart that's broken, it's his confidence and belief in his abilities.
Having heard a lot of negative things about the duke while posing as Mather, Elizabeth's secretary, Olivia has very qualms about stealing Marwick's late wife's letters to find blackmail material on Bertram. Yet when she actually spends time in his home, reading his journals and personal correspondence, appreciating his former achievements and good works, she is shocked to see the degree of desolation he appears to have succumbed to. Even when he tries to intimidate her and drive her away, she can't help trying to draw him out of his hopelessness. She's both appalled by and attracted to him. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that even as a crazy recluse he's described as being handsome as Lucifer.
As Olivia starts having a positive effect on the household and the duke himself, the fact that she's in his house under false pretences, attempting to make him trust her and make him better so he'll leave his private rooms in order for her to search them and steal from him is obviously a major conflict here. Olivia is driven by desperation of her own though. Seven years ago, when she first arrived in London, Bertram's man left her for dead in a ditch, and now he's on her trail again. She's fighting for her life and her own safety, and she's willing to fight dirty to protect herself, whether it's lying, stealing or resorting to blackmail. So our heroine isn't exactly pure as the driven snow either.
When I first finished the book, I rated it 4.5 stars, but since I finished it several weeks ago, I keep thinking about it and coming back to nuances of the story in my mind, and I can't really find any actual flaws in the story. Duran takes such an unpleasant and dark hero and a morally ambiguous and troubled heroine and gives them not only time to properly get to know each other, building a believable, if rocky and complicated romance. I loved Olivia gradually making the duke better, almost despite her own instincts. The passion between them is scorching, even when it's rather uncomfortable in the beginning. I liked that as the story progressed, Bertram turns out not to be a cardboard cutout villain either, despite Olivia's impression of him. I already can't wait to reread this book, and after careful consideration, it's now my favourite of Duran's books. I'm eagerly anticipating her next book.