|I have always been a fan of Cinderella. The rags-to riches tale of a good girl, a great makeover and a prince is, in my mind, the ultimate fairytale. In Duke Most Wanted, Celeste Bradley has taken this classic romance and turned it into a wonderful, heartwarming tale, complete with a very surprising twist near the end.
Cousins Deirdre, Phoebe and Sophie are the last generation of their family to have a chance at capturing a great, secret family fortune that has been decreed to go to the first female in the family to marry a duke. However, the girls are bound by the will, unable to reveal the fortune until after the marriage has occurred. At this time, Deirdre is happily married to Lord Raphael Marbrook, Phoebe is wed to Calder, the Marquis of Brookhaven and Sophie is mostly alone.
She lives with her aunt, Lady Tessa, a neglectful and nasty chaperone. This arrangement suits Sophie just fine, as in truth, she’s not interested in marriage or attaining the family fortune. Sophie only decided to come to London to escape her life of country servitude. She has no illusions about herself, knowing she’s unattractive and unskilled. Sophie understands that it’s rather unlikely that a duke will spot her wit and intelligence from across a crowded ballroom and fall madly in love.
However, Sophie has a friend to fill her empty hours with: Lord Graham Cavendish. Graham is the spoiled youngest son of an established family. He is an intentional rake who believes his calling is to be a layabout spendthrift. He is also intelligent, humorous and kind. His lazy charm is the perfect foil for Sophie’s sharp, witty remarks and they spend many hours together playing cards, talking and gossiping. Luckily, it’s only friendship. Sophie tells herself over and over that she isn’t interested in marriage, and Graham shouts it to whoever will listen. Graham is quite content with his path in life and intends to drift carelessly along.
Shockingly, Graham comes home one evening to a messenger who informs him that he has lost his father and brothers in one day. He is now the Duke of Edencourt. Not only does Graham now shoulder the responsibility of a vastly neglected estate with tenants, he quickly realizes he must marry a rich lady. The afternoons that he once spent in Sophie’s parlor have disappeared as he tries to make sense of his new role.
Sophie, meanwhile, heartbroken yet confused by her emotions since learning of Graham’s fortune, runs to famous dressmaker Lementeur. He recognizes her as a kindred spirit and sets about making Sophie over from the outside in, even training her in the etiquette and style of London society. Lementeur proves to be a hilariously understanding fairy godmother who renames Sophie “Sofia” while directing her to react languidly to society.
Graham and Sofia come face to face at her first ball. He is completely shocked by his feelings of possessiveness and desire for her, seeing her in a whole new light. It helps that suitors, not all of them honorable, are crawling all over themselves to court Sofia.
Romance rooted in deep friendship is so multifaceted. In Duke Most Wanted, we get to know the characters better through their impressions of each other. The way Graham remembers Sophie’s sharp barbs when he is blind drunk and recognizes her insight is hilarious. Sophie’s longing for a new closeness with Graham is only amplified by the hours they’ve passed together and her intimate knowledge of his character. She doesn’t have blinders on; she knows exactly what Gray is and what he isn’t. Graham also knows Sophie. He values her purity and is afraid that he’ll stomp all over it when he gets too close. He knows himself well enough to realize he can be thoughtless, and careless. This is exactly the kind of heartless disinterest that would chip away at a girl like Sophie.
Their dialogue is intelligent, knowing and funny. The joking banter between Sophie and Graham is instantly recognizable as intense friendship translating into steamy passion. Every part of the story was vastly entertaining, fast-paced and fun. The secondary characters added richness and especially humor into the storyline. Duke Most Wanted is a new fairytale: romantic, beautifully written and destined to live on my bookshelf for years to come.