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The Very Daring Duchess
by Miranda Jarrett
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-1792-5
***
For fully two-thirds of this book, I was pretty sure I was going to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. After all, it has a unique heroine, a gallant hero, an unusual setting, and an interesting premise. Whatís not to like? Unfortunately, at the very moment that things should have gotten good, things went wrong. Hence the three heart rating.

Letís start with the setting. The story begins in Naples in 1798. The British Mediterranean fleet, recently victorious at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, has come to the harbor to refit and to prop up the government of the kingdomís incompetent ruler. It was, of course, in Naples that Nelson met and fell in love with the wife of the British ambassador, Emma Hamilton.

The hero is Captain Lord Edward Ramsden. The fourth son of a duke, Lord Edward had been sent into the navy at the age of nine by his cruel and uncaring father. He had risen in the ranks and is now the captain of a ship of the line and one of the heroes of the recent battle. Seeking diversion, he and his lieutenant go one afternoon to the gallery/shop of Francesca Robin, daughter of a noted artist and his Italian model. Her late father, an Englishman, had attracted visitors to his shop to view a series of pornographic paintings that Lt. Nye very much wishes to see.

Francesca is beautiful and exotic. She is also herself a talented artist. Obviously, she is not quite respectable. For some reason she cannot explain, when she meets Lord Edward, sparks fly between the two, both literally and figuratively. But nothing would have come of their relationship were it not for the advancing French. Because she is half-English, Francesca will be in danger when the enemy takes Naples. She seeks refuge with the English fleet, but the admiral refuses to take a single woman on board one of his ships. To his own surprise, Lord Edward finds himself offering to marry this most unsuitable but most alluring woman.

Francesca accepts his offer; she has little choice. But she doesnít want a real marriage. She had promised her father that she would devote herself to her art. So, despite the attraction the two feel for each other, there is no passionate wedding night. However, the more he gets to know Francesca, the more determined Edward is to win her.

Then, to his dismay, Edward is ordered to give up his ship and return to London. While neither he nor Francesca know why, the reader can surmise from the title of the book that he has unexpectedly inherited the title.

A reviewer has the responsibility not to reveal too much of a novelís plot but it is very difficult for me to explain my less than enthusiastic response to The Very Daring Duchess without including some spoilers. So this is your spoiler warning.

Everything is fine with the story until the two arrive in London. During their voyage they become even closer, both emotionally and physically. They have clearly fallen in love. But when they arrive in England, Francesca decides to simply disappear. She does have a place to go; her uncle gladly takes her in. She doesnít want Edward to find her, so what does she do? She reestablishes her gallery in London and advertises for customers. Does she really think that Edward - now the Duke of Harborough - will not look for her? Even if he has concluded that she is not a suitable duchess, he would have to do something about the fact that they are married! This whole part of the book made no sense at all.

Perhaps a bit less problematic is the blackmail plot that the author inserts into the story, but even the outcome of this aspect of the plot is less than satisfactory.

As I stated above, The Very Daring Duchess began very promisingly but its ending disappointed. Thus, I can rate it as only an acceptable historical romance.

--Jean Mason


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