It must be very difficult to create a tortured hero. Obviously, events in his past have left him scarred and distrustful, fearful of love and intimacy. But despite his unhappy history, he must have some kind of attractiveness that makes the reader believe that the heroine has a reason for falling in love with our damaged but intriguing hero.
Unfortunately, Eileen Putman’s hero, Adrian St. Ledger, Duke of Trent, failed to meet this important requirement. Oh, he was tortured, all right, but rather than seeming intriguing, he mostly came across as annoying.
Adrian is an unwilling duke. He achieved the title only after his father and his two elder brothers died. Before assuming his new rank, he was a scientist, interested in determining the origin of the strange bones that have turned up here and there in quarries. In short, he is a pioneering paleontologist. He has reluctantly, at the insistence of his
father’s factorum, Gibbons, come to London to look into the estate’s business. He is equally reluctant to cooperate with his uncle, who comes to enlist him in the cause of ferreting out potential spies.
It seems that one Burwell had been identified as a French agent, but before he could be apprehended, he stood in front of the mail coach and was killed. Right before his death, he had been visiting Mrs. Emmaline Stanhope, a marriage broker. Since Mrs. Stanhope also dabbles in fortune telling and since Burwell was carrying the tarot death card when
he stood there and let the coach run him down, the authorities wonder if the lady might not be somehow involved. Adrian’s uncle wants him to investigate because of his extensive knowledge (and distrust) of all things supernatural.
Adrian grudgingly agrees to the task and decides that the best way to approach the suspect is to pretend to be in search of a wife. Thus, he meets Emmaline.
Circumstances have forced Emmaline into this unusual way of making a living. Her scholarly father -- he studied fairy tales and believed in them -- had left her with nothing but debts, and her dear aunt, a retired actress, is suffering from some malady and needs medical care. Emmy has chosen to masquerade as a widow to gain greater respectability.
Emmaline really needs her new client’s fee, but she also realizes that no sane woman would willingly ally herself with the brusque and unpleasant “Mr.” St. Ledger. So she informs him that she will have to give him lessons in how to please a lady.
As I analyze the relationship between Adrian and Emmaline, I realize that -- on his part, we are not really dealing with romance but rather with obsession. Very soon after meeting Emmy, thoughts of her take over his mind. And, of course, he fights them because they threaten his well ordered existence. Love has no place in Adrian’s life.
I was never completely clear as to why Emmaline becomes likewise obsessed with Adrian. It must have been his handsome face and his manly physique, because there is nothing in his behavior or his treatment of her to make her suddenly fall in love with the man. Thus, the crux of the problem with Never Kiss a Duke lies in my inability to believe in the romance.
Putman embellishes her story with a convoluted and improbable intrigue as Emmaline and Adrian attempt to discover who is the traitor who is responsible for Burwell’s death and for an attempt to kidnap Emmy. Since I figured out who the villain was at his first appearance, this aspect of the story did not truly engage my interest. The author does
include some interesting bits about spiritualism, mesmerism, and quackery.
Actually, the most entertaining characters were Aunt Heloise and Mr. Gibbons. One does like to see true love bloom late in life.
Since I found neither the romance nor the plot of Never Kiss a Duke particularly compelling, I must warn readers that Putman’s latest effort was a disappointment.