The Runaway Duke
by Julie Anne Long
(Warner, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61425-4
*****
One of the greatest pleasures in reviewing is finding a debut author who just oozes talent. I’ve been fortunate to review not one, but two such authors in the past month. The Runaway Duke is absolutely delightful from start to finish. Remember Julie Anne Long’s name – if this is a real indication of her storytelling ability, she’s headed for the top.

Roarke Connor Riordan Blackburn, heir to the Duke of Dunbrooke, fled his father’s brutality and ended up on the battlefield at Waterloo. When he’s wounded and mistaken for a foot soldier, it’s his big chance to escape a life he never wanted and become someone else. Taking two of his names, Roarke becomes “Connor Riordan”, and when he arrives back in England, he slips into anonymity as a groom to the inconspicuous Baron Henry Tremaine.

Five years later, Connor is still Tremaine’s head groom. Though he professes to have dreams of emigrating to America, in truth, it’s bright, unconventional young Rebecca Tremaine who keeps him in England – but only as a friend. Or so Connor believes, until Becca attempts to spy on her sister’s tryst in the garden and ends up compromised herself. Now she’s engaged to a handsome rake who only wants her dowry. Connor can’t bear the thought of her life wasted in a loveless marriage, and decides to help her flee. They’ll head for Scotland, where his long-lost aunt will welcome them. With any luck, Connor can then leave for America and a new life.

Becca has few items in her possession, but one of them is a mysterious gold locket she lifted from an overcoat the night before her escape. Connor recognizes the miniature inside, and the inscription. It’s from his former mistress, an actress whom he abandoned when he went to war. It seems the mistress is now the widowed Duchess of Dunbrooke, and Connor’s brother is dead. Connor is the new Duke, but he can’t bear the thought of returning to the stultifying life he hated. And the Duchess will stop at nothing to keep her title. Not only is Connor’s life in danger, but Becca’s is as well.

And amid all this, Becca and Connor realize they love one another – truly, deeply, and passionately.

There are many, many things right with this book. First of all, there isn’t a caricature in the entire story. Becca’s sister isn’t a spoiled witch, she’s just a careless young woman who is genuinely distressed at the havoc her unthinking behavior has brought. The mistress is a woman with a very painful past, and for a would-be killer, she’s surprisingly sympathetic. The handsome rake falls head-over-heels for Becca and doesn’t know what to do about it. Connor doesn’t want his birthright, but the niggling guilt over what it’s doing to the tenants causes him to at least think about reclaiming it. The parents love both of their daughters and want what’s best for them.

Connor and Rebecca have to be two of the most enjoyable characters in recent memory. Connor starts out as a steadfast friend, one of the few people who can appreciate Rebecca’s unique personality and quick mind. Her interest in anatomy and medicine and her forthright, honest personality don’t put him off; rather, it makes her more interesting to him, mainly because he eschews the very social mores she so detests. The thought of his Becca wasting her time playing the pianoforte and doing embroidery strikes Connor as not only ridiculous, but distasteful. It takes a hero who has little use for society’s strictures to be a truly effective partner for a Regency heroine who feels the same. Julie Anne Long understands this and employs it perfectly.

Becca never comes across as a “madcap heroine”, but rather as an intelligent young woman who is a fish out of water to just about everyone but Connor. Other than a blessedly short bout of insecurity near the end, she’s as steady as they come. She knows Connor is hiding something about his past, but she loves the essential man, so she doesn’t let it bother her for most of the story. No wishy-washy heroine here.

The climax felt just a hair forced, but the ending was wonderful, and not what the reader may expect. Every character gets just what they deserve.

The Runaway Duke is a terrific debut - fresh, funny, full of unexpected twists, with a fabulous romance that’s as captivating as it is tender. Connor and Becca are going to steal your hearts. Don’t miss this one.

--Cathy Sova


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