|I was one-third of the way through The Secret Duke when out-of-town guests arrived., and you know what? I didn’t care. I put it down without the slightest qualm. When a few days later I picked it up again, I couldn’t remember the title, couldn’t remember the lead characters, could barely remember the broadest plot details. This is not good. While reading it, I thought I’d probably give it 3 hearts, but a book that induces instant amnesia can’t be deemed “acceptable.”
In a really silly pact, three Georgian gentlemen vow to donate 1000 guineas if they ever marry to Lady Fowler, a feminist activist who supports women’s rights. (This is silly because the three are gentlemen of property and titles who need heirs of their body, and they’ll need wives to get said heirs. It’s also silly because that kind of vow is a sure-fire way of tempting fate.)
In 1760 Captain Rose rescues a well-born maiden from the clutches of vile brutes in a squalid Dover tavern. Bella Barstowe informs him that she has been abducted. She knows that if her disappearance is noticed she’ll be ruined. Captain Rose is actually the Duke of Ithorne. He sometimes exchanges identities with his illegitimate half-brother Caleb just to get away from all those ducal responsibilities. Bella manages to escape before her rescuer learns her name.
Four years later Bella has been living as the disgraced poor relation in her brother’s house. Her late father never received a ransom note from her kidnappers so it was assumed she had run away with a lover then returned when she was abandoned. Her situation takes an unexpected turn when she receives an inheritance from her great-grandmother. It allows Bella to establish herself as Bellona Flint and assist Lady Fowler in her work of exposing the licentious secrets of the rich and powerful.
Disguised as a scantily clad nymph, Bella gains admittance to the Olympian Revels, an annual masked ball at Ithorne House. There she meets a gentleman—Thorn of course--dressed as a Roman slave. They dance; they flirt. When a scandal breaks out, Bella is able to slip away without giving her name.
It isn’t until a later meeting when Bella seeks help in avenging her abduction that she reveals her true identity to Thorn who’s once again posing as Captain Rose except she still doesn’t know who he really is, and he doesn’t know she’s the nymph from the masquerade ball.
And so it goes and so it goes. It takes a long time before everyone’s identity is straightened out and all the confusion is cleared up. Not that I really cared anymore. I did care that the punishment inflicted on the evil manipulator behind Bella’s abduction is jarringly distasteful. If I had had any lingering interest in the characters, that would have ended it.
The Secret Duke is the final installment in the Rakish trilogy which in turn is part of the author’s Malloren series. As might be expected, numerous characters – including Rothgar – from earlier books have roles in this one … with resulting additional confusion for those readers who haven’t got an encyclopedic memory of all the earlier characters.
Readers who have followed each and every twist and turn of Jo Beverley’s ever-growing Malloren series may feel obligated to read The Secret Duke, but any book that so completely fails the put down/pick up test should not be required reading for even the most loyal of the author’s fans.