The Bartered Heart

Keeper of the Swans

The Rake's Retreat

The Ramshackle Suitor

Reclaiming Lord Rockleigh

Regency Christmas Spirits

The Discarded Duke by Nancy Butler
(Signet, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-451-20679-7
Cross-class Regency romances are not all that unusual, but generally it is the woman who marries above her station. Far less common are stories of women who fall in love with someone who is patently unsuitable and choose to abandon their social position to achieve their happiness. In The Discarded Duke, Nancy Butler almost succeeds in writing such a tale which would have rivaled Carla Kelly’s The Lady’s Companion, one of my personal favorites. Maybe it is the conventions of the genre that led her to the ending she chose. But what makes this book a four-heart read is not the perhaps too pat ending but rather the romance between the lady and the bailiff.

Ursula Roarke’s circumstances are desperate. She married the charming Irishman, Sir Roary Roarke, for love and discovered too late that he was a compulsive gambler. Only her efforts kept their horse farm afloat, but then Roary went and got himself killed on a foolish dare. He left a mountain of debt, an entailed property and no money. Then, on her reentry into Dublin society, she met the Duke of Ardsley who was much struck with both her person and with the possibility of owning the famous Roarke stud. Now, Ursula is on her way to visit one of the duke’s properties to see if it is suitable for her horses. She hopes to use her time at Myrmion to win the duke’s heart.

Will Ridd is the bailiff of Myrmion, a position he has held for a decade. He had taken a poorly run estate and made it into a profitable property by experimenting with his sheep and developing a special kind of wool. The duke had never been near Myrmion; it was the scene of a family tragedy. Why is he coming now and what will it mean for his sheep and his people?

The first meeting between duke and bailiff and bailiff and lady is not a happy one. Nor do things improve when Will discovers that the duke intends to turn Myrmion into a stud farm. What will become of his sheep and the people who depend on the wool they produce? Will is not behind hand in letting the duke know what he thinks of the scheme and the duke, with all the pride of his position, is quite willing to put Will in his place. Seeing all his hard work in danger of being destroyed, Will not surprisingly blames Ursula for the duke’s actions.

Will decides to try to convince Ursula of the harm that the change would bring to the estate. As he shows her what he has achieved, Ursula comes to appreciate the bailiff and to understand that they are kindred souls, despite the difference in their stations.

Will is the most interesting character in The Discarded Duke. Clearly intelligent, definitely handsome, he is also flawed, at least in the world’s terms. He suffers from occasional epileptic fits, although these have decreased in frequency since he grew up. And he has no memory of his childhood before his eleventh year, when he was an inmate of a private asylum. He had been rescued from that hell by Rigger, an employee of the late duke. Rigger had educated him and gotten him the position at Myrmion. There he had proved himself immensely capable. He is, by the way, one of those most unusual of Regency heroes: a believable virgin.

Ursula made the best of the bad deal that her marriage became. Her motivations in trying to catch the duke, if less than attractive, are understandable. Her position is desperate as even the horses she labored so hard to develop must be sold to pay her late husband’s debts. She must marry well or she will face penury. Yet she clearly recognizes the sterling worth of the bailiff and tries to protect his achievements.

Central to the story is the duke himself. The second son, he became the heir when his beloved elder brother died as a child - at Myrmion. He inherited at the young age of seventeen and fell under the control of his domineering grandmother, whose sense of family pride governed her entire life. She separated him from his youthful love, Barbara, because she was not good enough for him. Marrying Ursula and starting the stud farm are a way of declaring his independence. The reappearance of Barbara in his life, still a spinster and actively involved in Will’s schemes, helps him to ask questions about the past and the future.

Butler has created a cast of interesting characters and placed them in an interesting situation. This reader cheered on Will and Ursula as they discovered that social distinctions matter little when one has found one’s true soul mate. Ursula’s recognition of Will’s worth redeems her from the seeming selfishness that she evinced at the beginning of the book.

The Discarded Duke begins as a most unusual Regency romance. If it doesn’t quite end that way, still it provides an entertaining and rewarding tale of the power of love to break down social barriers.

--Jean Mason

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