This tale of Regency England could easily have been in the keeper category but for 50 pages when the big misunderstanding and utter pigheadedness on the part of both the hero and heroine keep them apart. What keeps the tale in the recommended status is the strength of the secondary characters that watch these two and intervene to get them back together. The balance of The Dutiful Rake is worth the frustration I felt during those 50 pages.
Marguerite Fellowes, Meg to her friends, is a poor relation to a miserly and miserable man in the country. Her parents ended their lives in a scandal when her mother was found with another man and her father shot them, then himself. Kicked out by a cousin, the heir to their estates, she is forced to be little more than a servant. When said cousin dies, the estate reverts to the Earl of Rutherford. Before she can leave for a job as a governess that she had arranged, she falls ill with the flu. Upon awaking she discovers a friend, Marc, who cares for her in her feverish delirium. Marc is none other than the Earl, Marcus Langley.
Marc discovers the housekeeper, who he assumed was elderly and incapable of working because of the poor condition in which he found the house, to be a lovely young woman. The doctor assured him she would get better, but not without nursing. No other servants are found except an elderly butler and his sick wife, so Marc is forced to be that nurse. When circumstances dictate, Marc asks Meg to marry him. It will be a marriage of convenience – she provides an heir, then exercises discretion when she has affairs, and he will provide for her as his countess.
The reasons for this absurd offer are due to the Earl’s rather ridiculous notion that if he is happy, disaster will strike, therefore he cannot care too much for anyone. There is a reason for this belief, but it is not revealed until late in the tale. The author does a good job of making this seem reasonable even as Meg and the readers know it is not.
The bulk of the first half of the story shows Marc and Meg enjoying each other and learning to like each other, even while they fall in love. Yet they hide this from the other, fearing rejection. The lies and misunderstandings just keep piling up and eventually they are little more than strangers. It is at this point that the story begins to drag. It appears nothing can stop this vicious cycle and as a reader, I was beginning to think neither one deserved happiness.
But there is one man who sees through these demeanors. Jack Hamilton is Marc’s closest friend and he wants the best for him. He sees beyond Meg’s coldness to see the hurt young woman who is in love. He also realizes that Marc can be different with his bride, if he opens up his heart. Jack is poised for his own story and I hope Rolls will delight us all with it in the future.
Jack works to help the two see the possibilities along with Diane, Lady Carlton, who is Marc’s sister. She befriends Meg and helps her to make her way through the paths of society. While Marc is being an obstinate male and Meg is putting on her happy face except behind closed doors, Jack steals the show with a little help from Diane.
Meg is the true hero of the story. She is courageous and practical, even while she is devastated emotionally by rejection after rejection. She has learned to put on a façade to hide her fears and her love and she does it very well, convincing Marcus that she is all he assumed woman were – shallow and wanting him only for his money. To show this contrast, Meg assumes a dual role – when Marc is her lover and gentle friend, then she is Meg, willing to love him and make a life with him. When Marc wears the Earl’s persona – cold, arrogant and aloof - then she becomes the Countess – equally aloof and bent on showing the Earl and society that she can get by without emotion.
There is one villain, who for some reason that is never fully explained, wants to ruin Meg because he hates Marc. This plotline gives Marc a reason for rescuing Meg, but otherwise seems a little contrived and not well thought out.
Overall, The Dutiful Rake is a tale of love and learning to be oneself. With a strong heroine, a decent hero and a wonderfully enticing friend of the family, this tale is a nice way to spend a few hours in Regency England.