May 2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
St. Martin's, $6.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312939701 Part of a series
Duke Most Wanted was a pleasant surprise. I've only read one other book by Celeste Bradley, and it was notable for its jerk hero whose one interesting quality was a larger than life penis. This book, on the other hand, was a fun read in the light and funny vein. It's neither serious nor particularly historically accurate, but sometimes that's alright.
This book is the third in Heiress Bride series. All three books are about the granddaughters of a man who promised to give his fortune to whichever granddaughter could land a duke. As the book beings, it seems that everyone already knows who will win the fortune, because one of the granddaughters is married to a duke's heir. The heroine of this particular book, Sophie Blake, never planned on trying to marry a duke. She's in London for the season because she has lived a sheltered life in the country, and she wants the chance to live a little. Since she's tall, awkward, and bespectacled, Sophie doesn't think she'd attract a man anyway. So far, her favorite thing about coming to London is meeting Graham, who is her chaperone's cousin. Graham never intends to marry; he is the youngest son of a duke and has a three older brothers standing between him and the title. So he's content to sow wild oats and pal around with Sophie.
Then naturally an event happens that changes everything. While hunting in Africa, Graham's father and all of his brothers are killed by the same wild elephant (you wouldn't think this would be funny at all, but somehow the scene is hilarious). Graham suddenly becomes the Duke of Edencourt, and finds himself staggering under the weight of the responsibility. He realizes that while he blithely spent his allowance and cavorted with women, his father and brothers ran the estate into the ground. The family seat is completely decrepit, and the villagers that depend on the estate for their livelihood are impoverished. Graham knows that the only logical solution to his problem is to marry an heiress.
And Sophie's an heiress if she marries a duke, so problem solved, right? Well, not exactly. For one thing, the will forbids the granddaughters from revealing that they stand to inherit the money if they marry a duke. This never really made sense to me, and I didn't see how they could possible keep that under wraps - but I also didn't read the first two books, so possibly it's explained better there. Anyway, Graham doesn't know Sophie's an heiress, so he thinks that marrying her would mean complete ruin for himself and his dependents. Ironically, he finds out that he is a duke just when he realizes that he has feelings for Sophie. His difficult choice between his heart and his responsibilities is an excellent conflict.
There is another wrinkle as well. Sophie has a secret of her own (a huge spoiler kind of secret) that could ruin everything. The reader only finds out her secret near the end of the book, but it weighs heavily on Sophie throughout, and influences all her decisions.
What works best about this book, right from the start, is the humor. Graham's struggle is actually pretty serious, and it's the main conflict that drives the book. But Graham approaches the situation manfully, with something of an attitude. There is a hilarious scene where Graham systematically collects various hunting trophies (accumulated by his father and brothers), and builds a bonfire with them. If you want to know what he does to the giant bear that's too large to move, you'll have to read the book. The whole thing put me in mind of a family reunion a few years ago, where we stayed in a lodge decorated by a Utah hunting/taxidermy enthusiast. One evening I sat with several of my relatives, trying to decide which animal was the creepiest. It was a tough call.
Though Graham more or less steals the show, Sophie is a sympathetic character. Since she's a poor relation and awkward misfit rolled into one, it's easy to root for her. That said, her big secret jarred me, and I wasn't entirely sure that it fit with her character. After it was revealed, the book lost a bit of its luster.
All in all, though, I'd recommend Duke Most Wanted. It's not exactly full of hard-hitting realism, but the characters are amusing and endearing. Reading it is a pretty good way to spend your time.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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