Ambrogina, Duchess of Girton, is a twenty-three-year-old virgin. No matter that she’s been married for twelve years. Yes, you read that right. Gina was married at the tender age of eleven to Camden Serrard, the eighteen-year-old heir to the Duke of Girton. Cam escaped out the window right after the wedding and headed for the Continent. He’s spent the last twelve years making his way as a sculptor, having settled in Greece. But now his father is dead and Cam is back in England, preparing to hand the dukedom over to a cousin and have his marriage annulled, at Gina’s request.
Gina fancies herself in love with a marquess, whom she plans to marry as soon as the annulment is finalized. Yet she has warm feelings for her old friend and playmate, Cam, and when he appears at a house party, she squeals, runs across the ballroom, and launches herself at him, shrieking, “You look just the same - no, you’re so much bigger. Hello, Cam! It’s me, Gina - your wife!”
Cam, for his part, is taken aback the grown-up Gina. The tall, slender redhead isn’t at all the girl he’d grown up with, and the more he is around her, the more charmed - and aroused - he becomes. His Gina? Marry a pompous bore? Unthinkable. He doesn’t want to be married himself, you see, but surely there’s someone better for Gina. Like, well, himself.
Cam and Gina will have some help. The solicitor hired to prepare the annulment has plans to get the Duke of Girton back home where he belongs, with his wife. And Gina’s circle of friends, all unhappily married women with time to dally, will help her bring Cam to his senses. Their secondary romantic escapades are woven into the plot, sometimes rather awkwardly.
Parts of Duchess in Love are wonderful, especially Cam. It would be hard to find a better example of a dog-in-the-manger hero, and so charmingly presented at that. He wants Gina, but only in the carnal sense. But he doesn’t want her married to anyone else, either. And he doesn’t want to be married himself, but he can’t let her go. Watching Cam twist in the wind as he gradually comes to his senses is delightful.
Gina is less appealing, though she has her own charm. Her actions are borderline twit at times (see ballroom scene, above), and she clings to her engagement to the odious marquess long after any sane woman would have given him the boot. A subplot in which her friend Carola tries to recapture her estranged husband’s interest by switching beds is enthusiastically endorsed by Gina, though readers may be wondering why she doesn’t just go talk to the man. The plot ping-pongs back and forth from Gina to Carola to Esme, and at times it’s a bit annoying, taking on the aspects of a Regency soap opera.
The author presents one side of Gina’s character which is completely delightful, and that is her running of the Girton estate. Cam is taken aback to find it’s really his wife who has gradually put the estate back on its feet, and Gina puts Cam firmly in his place when he starts to protest. After all, she points out, if he’d been here to tend to things, she wouldn’t have needed to step in, but since he was off in Greece ignoring his ducal responsibilities, somebody had to keep the tenants from starving to death, and his useless estate manager was no help. Cam comes to appreciate his wife’s intelligence through her discussions of wool prices and bridge repairs, and since he has little use for Society himself, it’s a perfect fit. And there you have Cam and Gina - smart in practical matters, but clumsy in matters of the heart.
On a side note, there were loads of anachronistic-sounding phrases in this story, and they were jarring. I can’t quite picture a Regency lady saying, “He obviously doesn’t give a rat’s ass for me”. Nor can I picture a child of eleven being married legally, or running a vast estate at the age of fifteen - especially a girl. Maybe it was legal. But it was still troubling. And even if they grew up together, would a seventeen-year-old boy really have an eleven-year-old girl as a playmate? Quite an age difference there.
Many readers will be charmed by this story. Gina and Cam certainly have their moments. Duchess in Love has at its heart an entertaining tale of two people determined to be free of each other and finding they are completely wrong.