|Laura Lee Guhrke’s The Wicked Ways of a Duke is the second installment in her series “The Girl-Bachelor Chronicles.” Prudence Bosworth is living in a genteel rooming house with a group of other ladies and making her living as a seamstress. She is one of the new breed of career women known as “girl-bachelors” in 1894. While working at a ball one evening, repairing hems and rips, she catches the eye of the rakish Duke of St. Cyres, and later, when she sees him rescuing another servant who is being accosted, Prudence decides he is “brave, considerate and utterly splendid.”
This brave, splendid Duke is Rhys de Winter, and he’s flat broke. Rhys’s attendance at the ball was to look over the current crop of heiresses and choose one to marry, but he can’t bring himself to offer for any of them. Prudence caught his eye, but she’s little more than a servant, though a very pretty one, and he needs to marry a fortune.
Then Prudence’s world is turned upside-down. The father she never knew, who abandoned her mother without marrying her and left for America, has died and made Prudence the sole beneficiary of his will. Henry Bosworth changed his name to Henry Abernathy and started what became the richest department store chain in America. Prudence is now an heiress, with an income of a million pounds a year, provided she marries within one year’s time. A greedy aunt and uncle are soon on her doorstep to lend respectability to her situation and provide chaperonage, and perhaps direct her marriage to favor themselves.
Word of her inheritance reaches the Duke, and without seeing Prudence, he decides that this is the woman he’ll court and marry. He’s astonished to find she’s the dark-haired beauty he met briefly at the ball, but so much the better. Prudence is dazzled by his attentions and falls in love with him almost instantly. Their engagement is soon announced, and then they’re off to Rhys’s family home to look the place over.
Rhys is battling some demons from his childhood, and they are nasty, indeed. His icy mother virtually ignored him, his younger brother committed suicide, and he truly believes he lacks the ability to deeply care for anyone. Prudence, of course, will prove him wrong, but by the time Rhys realizes he loves her, the cat will be out of the bag and his deception will have come to light. The ensuing train wreck is telegraphed far in advance, and readers will only be able to sit in dread and wonder how much emotional carnage there will be.
I found it hard to warm up to either one of these characters. Prudence is naive in the extreme, falling head over heels for Rhys on the basis of his good looks and a bit of charm. For a woman in her mid-twenties, she’s remarkably childlike. The appearance of the same aunt and uncle who mistreated her ten years earlier and are now back, toadying to her fortune, elicits no more from Prudence than a little mental hand-wringing, when a stronger reaction would have been all too welcome. I kept waiting for her to send them packing, but she never did, which was annoying.
As for Rhys, he’s set up as a cad from the start, and he plays true to form for most of the book. His cynical pursuit of Prudence for her money is probably true to the time period, but it isn’t much fun to read about. The best part of the story comes after Rhys admits he’s in love with Prudence, and she now wants nothing to do with him. The ending is rather inventive. Gurhke can throw a twist into a tale with the best of them.
What saves this story is the strength of the writing. I might not have liked these characters very much, but the author knows how to tell a story, and her prose is clean and crisp. The plot moves along briskly; in fact, Gurhke’s writing is so fluid that I kept on reading, waiting for Prudence and Rhys to finally captivate me. And finally, they did.
The Wicked Ways of a Duke is an entertaining entry in this series. Though I wasn’t totally enthralled, I’ll be looking for the next installment.