Belle of the Ball

Lady Delafont's Dilemma

Lady May's Folly

Lord St. Claire's Angel

A Matchmaker's Christmas

Miss Truelove Beckons

Pamela's Second Season

Rachel's Change of Heart

A Rake's Redemption

 
The Duke and Mrs. Douglas
by Donna Simpson
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7619-3
***
This book, like so many of Ms. Simpson’s Regencies, is a nicely paced, highly readable story. So as I read it, I was increasingly puzzled: where was the romance?

The Duke of Alban is at a bit of a loss. For most of his 34 years, the world was his oyster, both before and after he assumed the title. Now, however, he is a widower, his unhappy wife having died three years earlier while running away with her lover. The mentally ill king, to whom Alban has been a friend and confidant, almost a second son, no longer recognizes Alban, and the Prince Regent is understandably ambivalent about the young man preferred by his royal parent.

To make matters worse, Alban has just had to give his mistress her walking papers. He discovered she was selling information about him to someone in Prinny’s household.

Brighton, in the company of Prinny, has become tedious to the disillusioned Alban, so he decides to go north to Yorkshire to visit his Aunt Eliza. Although he writes regularly, it has been three years since he last saw the beloved aunt who gave him the guidance and affection his neglectful parents did not. He intends to go alone, but somehow finds himself with three traveling companions: the Earl of Orkenay, Sir John Fitzhenry, and Alban’s old friend Bart.

As Eliza is blind, her companion, Mrs. Kittie Douglas, reads all Alban’s letters to her. Over the three years she’s been with Lady Eliza, Kittie has become a little obsessed with the man who writes such loving and entertaining letters to his aunt. Kittie, herself, is a genteel widow, whose husband died insolvent because of inveterate gambling. She is expected a visit from two old friends, and Eliza is quite happy to have the mixed company.

In person, Kittie is shocked to find Alban arrogant and sarcastic, if disturbingly attractive. Alban is equally attracted to Kittie and jealous when Orkenay begins to pay attention to her. Unfortunately, making himself emotionally vulnerable is out of the question, and it would be insulting to his dear aunt to seduce her companion, so Alban finds himself in a quandary.

This story is full of interesting people and nicely paced, so it moves along at an engaging clip that kept me involved. As sometimes happens, this is more to the credit of the secondary characters, who are actually more vividly sketched that the hero and heroine. The foibles of Kittie’s female friends in particular – wicked, adventurous Rebecca and over-emotional Hannah – make them jump off the page. Beside them, the virtuous and slightly dense Kittie looks bland and predictable.

Similarly, Alban suffers from a lack of clear objective. His friends all seem to know what they want, and go after it. Alban merely waffles. His dog in the manger-ish behavior towards Kittie, which continues unchanged until the last two chapters of the book, appears increasingly caddish and selfish, robbing the character of sympathy. The author, herself, doesn’t seem to be clear on his motivation. Is he resisting his feelings because of the hurts he suffered in the past, or because Kittie is beneath his station? Ultimately, this renders the character vague and unfocused.

The story proceeds in a logical way out of the situation and the characters that the author has established. Usually I would consider this a positive thing, but as a result of the setup, the romance is stalled until the last two chapters. Alban continues to dither, learning nothing from either his own actions or anyone else’s. Kittie is tempted, but steadfastly resists every less than honorable offer made to her. Then, finally, mere pages from the end of the book, the actions of more sensible characters prod these two into action. That’s a little late for my taste.

In spite of its weaknesses, Ms. Simpson has an enviable knack for keeping the reader turning pages. To her credit, I was more than halfway through the story before I started to notice that something was missing. Unfortunately, when the romance is missing from a romance, it leaves a substantial gap, no matter how cleverly the author distracts me.

-- Judi McKee


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