Christmas With the Duchess
by Tamara Lejeune
(Zebra, $6.99, PG) ISBN 978-1420108736
Christmas With the Duchess is, without a doubt, one of the strangest romances I’ve ever read. It’s sort of a Regency soap opera/sitcom, with a bare overtone of a love store buried in there somewhere. It’s definitely different. Satisfying is another matter.

Emma Grey Fitzroy, the thirty-year-old widowed Duchess of Warwick, is preparing to welcome her family for the annual Christmas house party. Emma’s marriage to a philanderer made her determined to enjoy her own affairs, which she has done, though she’s dutifully given birth to two sons (as well as an illegitimate daughter). Emma’s behavior has caused her to lose custody of her boys to her obnoxious brother-in-law, Lord Hugh. He has removed the boys from their school and refuses to let Emma see them. Lord Hugh turns up for the house party with his wife, four daughters, and his nephew, young Nicholas Austell, the new Earl of Camford. His plans are to blackmail Emma. If she wants to see her sons for Christmas and keep her daughter’s birth a secret, she’ll have to give him ten thousand pounds.

It’s soon plain that Hugh has plans for Nicholas to marry one of his daughters, thereby keeping the Camford fortune in the family. Emma sees a way to thwart his plans. If she can dally with Nicholas and make him fall in love with her, it will change her bargaining position with Hugh. Nicholas, for his part, is a callow youth, a twenty-year-old former member of the Royal Marines who has no idea how to get on in Society. He’s also a virgin, and his instant infatuation with Emma is likely to make readers as uncomfortable as she is.

Also in residence for Christmas are Emma’s gay twin brother and his lover, another brother and his wife, several very disagreeable aunts, and the aforementioned female cousins. There’s much bed-hopping, drunken revelry, and all manner of insults hurled toward one another. Madcap? Yes. Tiresome? Also yes. Emma and Nicholas do finally end up in bed, where he turns out to be a huge disappointment. When he announces their impending marriage the next day, Emma is shocked and enraged and doesn’t hesitate to point out that it was only a simple dalliance. A few more machinations and Nicholas ends up engaged to the youngest cousin, and the whole crew departs.

This story takes place over the course of three Christmases, and it draaggggssss. My biggest problem with the whole tale is the age gap between Emma and Nicholas. It’s almost as if I could hear some editor on the phone to the author:

”Sweetie, ‘cougars’ are hot right now! We need a story with a Regency cougar in it. Better yet, make her a vampire! No? Well, anyway, definitely a cougar! She’s gotta be a lot older than him, and hot to trot, if you know what I mean. Readers are gonna love it!”

Um, no. Let’s see. She’s a very sexually-experienced mother of three children, and he’s just barely out of his teens and doesn’t know what to do with himself (and I mean that in every possible way). This didn’t feel romantic – it felt predatory. The sex scenes are offscreen, which lessened the impact somewhat, but that might have been a good thing. As it was, I didn’t believe in the romance that developed by the end of the story.

Okay, that aside, what about the plot? Well, it moves forward only because scene after scene finds someone in some sort of compromising position, and the worst is always believed. Nobody talks; when a character tries to explain, nobody listens. This is frustrating for any reader. There are a few over-the-top anachronisms, too. When Emma’s brother started talking in Pig Latin, the book nearly hit the trash can.

Yet, the author has a very winning style of writing, and she certainly has a great hand with snappy dialogue. I would buy her next book without hesitation. I think her talent could lift a more-standard plot into the stratosphere and make it a not-to-be-missed story.

Christmas With the Duchess didn’t work for me, but this is one I’m urging you to examine for yourself.

--Cathy Sova

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