Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29896-9
Historical Romance, 2016
Julia Justiss goes way back to her first published book with Harlequin Historical, The Wedding Gamble, to create a link between these two books. The sister of the heroine of that book is now the heroine here. The hero of this book first showed up as a brat in From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife, and funny enough, the title of that book could have reflected the story of our heroine perfectly.
Faith Wellingford Evers, the widowed Duchess of Ashedon, should be a familiar heroine. Her late husband was a philandering ass, and now, Faith has to share her home, and the attention of her kids, with her domineering and – of course – nasty mother-in-law, who is also bringing her other son to stay with them. This man is – naturally – another asshole who wants the heroine in his bed. Our heroine insists that her mother-in-law has no hold over her and she can walk away any time, but I’m sure we all know better.
One fine evening, she is accosted by vile men who want to drag her to a brothel and presumably make her the new star attraction. Yes, this is a standard pattern in this story: the heroine, for all her assertions, will always need the hero to rescue her. Anyway, she is rescued by our hero, David Tanner Smith, and the two of them actually go way back. Davie and Faith liked one another a lot back then – they still do – but because she is a nobleman’s daughter and he is just someone taken in by noble folks, and hence he exists in that limbo between respectability and nobody, things didn’t work out. Now, he has moved up in life a bit, being part of a group of idealists who want to drive social reforms in London.
As it turns out, because London’s elite is a small clique, they have plenty of excuse to keep seeing one another again. He has friends among the noble folks, so he has them issuing her invitations to gatherings and soirees, where he takes the opportunity to see her more often. But they both know that reputation is everything – he has his political aspirations and she has all kinds of obligations that hinge greatly on her remaining as respectable as can be, but they can surely be friends. Right?
In many ways, I like Stolen Encounters with the Duchess. The story can take on a vibe that can remind me too much of a Mary Balogh After School Special at times, but there are sneaky subversive elements here. Faith doesn’t want to be a martyr, and she doesn’t want to be helpless, and she tries to take control of her life. This is commendable, but the author never lets Faith succeed, unfortunately. This is the biggest detriment to my enjoyment of this story – after all is said and done, and for all of Faith’s best impersonation of Elsa defiantly singing that she is letting all the blues in her life go, the author insists on forcing the heroine into needing rescue anyway. Davies gallantly sweeps in and cleans up all her mess from start to finish. From dealing with brothel recruiters to rapey brothers-in-law on her behalf, he is the perfect, gallant gentleman.
This is a shame because Faith is, as a result, never allowed to be anything more than someone who is all talk but can’t walk it. Meanwhile, Davies is adorable. From the moment he meets Faith again, he knows right away that he is incapable of taking her as a mistress, even if she is willing, because he will want so much more from her. He is devoted to social justice in a rational yet impassioned way, and he is similarly devoted to Faith. I find him too sweet for words… but because he’s restricted to being the gallant rescuer pretty much all the time, this ends up preventing him too from being a more well rounded character. Their romance is sweet and tender, but it never feels balanced because the heroine just keeps needing rescuing all the bloody freaking time, sigh.
Anyway, a big part of me wishes to give this book four oogies, for what the characters and their love story could have been. But the story, especially the middle part, just drags for me because I fast tire of the whole pattern of the heroine bigging herself up to do something… only to deflate eventually for the hero to sweep right in, so in the end, this one will always remain a missed opportunity. And that’s a big shame. I want Stolen Encounters with the Duchess to be better so, so badly.