Alternate Title: Diddle Her On the Roof
The Chick: Antonia, Duchess of Warneham. The fourth (!) wife of the Duke of Warneham, he married her at bargain price because she was seriously damaged goods. Now widowed, she hopes she might be able to regain some of her independence - although that depends on the new Duke's plans.
The Rub: 2 parts Asshole Husband, 2 parts Unspeakable Tragedy, 1 splash of Guilt, 1 part Crazy, 1 drizzle of Seriously Crazy. Shake thoroughly, serve on the rocks.
Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.
The Dude: Gabriel Gareth Lloyd Ventnor - a.k.a. "Gareth Lloyd." Very distantly related to the Duke of Warneham and initially raised by his Jewish grandparents, he was intentionally thrown into horrific circumstances as the Duke's revenge for the accidental death of his heir. Despite the Duke's obsessive attempts to procreate, when he dies childless (under suspicious circumstances), Gareth unexpectedly inherits the title.
The Rub: 1 part Jewish Angst, 3 parts Sexual Abuse, 1 part Rage, splash of Abandonment. Stir.
Dream Casting: Daniel Craig.
Solicitor: Congratulations, you're a Duke!
Gareth: WHAT? How?
Solicitor: Congratulations, you're a widow!
Antonia: Oh, thank god.
Skeezy Doctor: Here, Antonia, take this medication for your craziness...(warning, side effects may include Sleep Crime)
Gareth and Antonia: *sleep-walk sex*
Gareth: Um...awkward. I feel like a heel, so why don't I try and clear your name of these nasty rumours, eh? Kemble!
Kemble, Magical Mystery Elf: *poof!* I live to serve!
Gareth: Solve the Duke's murder, immediately!
Kemble: Yes, Sir! *mystery solved!*
Gareth and Antonia: Hooray!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Sexually-Damaged Hero
1 Basketcase, Sleepwalking Heroine
2 Loyal Servants
1 Illegitimate, Anti-Semitic, Rapist Footman
3 Counts of Muuuuuuurder
2 Very Bad Husbands (deceased)
2 Traumatic Pasts
The Word: I have to admit, I walked into this novel with pretty low expectations. Partly because I'd just finished a Mary Balogh novel, and partly because I'm feeling a bit of romance novel exhaustion - I'm tired of the lame titles and boring covers and back-cover blurbs that don't hint at the real story but instead tell us the story the stupid marketers think stereotypical romance readers want to read. However, here's the thing about low expectations: I'm often pleasantly surprised, as I was with Never Deceive a Duke, the sequel to Never Lie to a Lady.
Gareth Lloyd, the successful part-owner of Neville Shipping, finds out by a solicitor that his distant cousin, the Duke of Warneham, has died childless, and that he, as the only living male heir, has inherited the title. However, Gareth doesn't really want the title - his past with the Warnehams was incredibly traumatic and he doesn't want to relive that by assuming responsibility of the Warneham fortune and estate.
However, he's encouraged by his friend Lord Rothewell to at least check out the estate and make sure the affairs are in order before resuming his normal life. There, he finds a scandal waiting to break forth: it turns out the not-so-dearly departed Duke died under suspicious circumstances (possible poisoning), and the name at the top of the incredibly long list of those who wished him ill is none other than his widow, Antonia.
While Antonia initially puts on a brave front, Gareth gets an inkling of her serious issues when he catches her sleepwalking on the roof in a thundering rainstorm, babbling incoherently about children and carriages. While he eventually snaps her out of it, she celebrates her return to sanity by jumping his bones in a spectacularly dramatic fashion. Gareth gives into passion and they make love in the rain.
Gareth feels terribly guilty about it the next morning. While he knows next to nothing about his cousin's fourth wife, his interactions with her convince him she's innocent of the Duke's death and his impression of her mental fragility fills him with concern over how the rampant rumours might damage her future prospects. To assuage his guilt for taking advantage of her (as he sees it), he decides to try and solve the mystery himself and end the rumours for good so that she might get on with her life. However, while solving the mystery, the two continue their physical relationship, each seeking some form of comfort in the other.
While their sexual relationship starts quickly, their romantic entanglement takes longer. Before her marriage to the Duke, Antonia endured another loveless marriage and the horrific deaths of her children, and in her subsequent grief she was judged mentally unsound and was subjected to barbaric 19th-century mental health treatments. Her period of mourning was barely over before her father packed her off to be married to the Duke (who was desperate enough for an heir to look past her mental history). Since then, she's even convinced herself that she's a basketcase and thinks that Gareth couldn't possibly want to handle her kind of baggage.
Gareth, meanwhile, thinks Antonia is out of his league, both socially and emotionally. His father came from a lower branch of the ducal family, and married a Jewish girl, to boot. When his parents died, he lived with his maternal grandparents who fostered his sense of Jewish identity, and he only later came to live with the Duke's family. However, when the Duke's son and heir died in an accident, the spiteful noble blamed Gareth and vowed this grubby Hebrew boy would never inherit - and he gave 12-year-old Gareth over to a press-gang (forced naval service) and spent the rest of his life obsessively trying to create or find an heir to take Gareth's place, just to make sure. Gareth ended up working for men who were little better than pirates and endured horrific abuse at their hands before being rescued by the Neville family and becoming a self-made man. Still, most of the locals still think of him as the jealous Jew boy who killed the Duke's son, and he doesn't want to damage Antonia's reputation by associating too closely with her.
On top of this delicious drama we have the surprisingly entertaining murder investigation, headed by Gareth's delightful assistant Kemble, who dredges up a host of juicy local secrets which add spice to an already entertaining story, including a suspicion that the deaths of the Duke's previous two wives might not have been accidents.
Part of what I found interesting about this story was that the narrative focus leaned more in Gareth's favour then in Antonia's. Almost all romances give both the hero and heroine a point of view, but usually the heroine gets the lion's share - she's the protagonist the usually-female readers are expected to identify with. This time, however, I felt I saw the majority of the story through Gareth's eyes, and wow, is he an intriguing character. Ethnically Jewish (although religiously ambivalent), the bigotry he has to endure adds an extra layer to his outsider status, and his discussion of the Jewish reverence for grief touches a chord with Antonia, a woman whose family pushed her to disregard her grief in favour of social advancement.
His sexual history also lends extra meaning to his relationship with Antonia. (I already warn about spoilers in my reviews, but to reiterate: Here Be Spoilers) As the indentured cabin boy aboard a ship of ruffians for over a year, he was repeatedly raped. He taught himself to take it, to become good at it, in order to survive, and ever since (even after escaping) has thought of himself as a bit of a whore.
Since then, in his sexual relationships (with both Antonia and Xanthia, the heroine from Never Lie to a Lady), he always suspects women sleep with him for their own comfort and pleasure, and not because they feel any particular affection for him. Don't get me wrong - Gareth does not have a ridiculous "All Women are Whores" mindset, but his traumatic experience has taught him to believe that giving sexual comfort is what he is good at, and hence, what women are looking for when they sleep with him. Although I haven't read Never Lie To A Lady, the way Gareth describes his relationship with the heroine (a very confident and strident lady, it seems), he's used to women who can sleep with him one night and walk away from him the next day.
With Antonia, he initially thinks she sleeps with him to get over her demons (and he cares for her enough that he's happy to oblige), and convinces himself her feelings for him are purely physical - to the point where later on in the book, when Antonia declares a desire to give him especial pleasure, his surprise is so evident it's heartbreaking. And romantic.
That's not to say that Antonia's not an important character. While at the beginning she is a damsel in severe distress, Liz Carlyle manages the amazingly subtle task of keeping her a downplayed, quiet, and relatively unobtrusive person throughout the novel - the difference is that in the end, she's her own downplayed, quiet, and relatively unobtrusive person, because she chooses to be this way, instead of being forced into it by her father.
That being said, there were some things that kept this from A status. I felt the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and one of the characters felt forced and arbitrary - that would be the Illegitimate, Anti-Semitic Rapist Footman. He seemed like a cipher, or a catalyst who invoked plot changes without actually being a character. We rarely see him "on screen" (so to speak), and it seems the entire purpose for his character's purely evil existence is to piss off Gareth and to show the Reader that Gareth votes OH HELL NAW on Anti-Semites and Rapists. He's even fired "off screen" a quarter of the way in only to appear again at the very end to cause a contrived crisis that finally forces our protagonists to admit their love for each other. He is the living embodiment of a Plot Device, and it irked me that a lot of the romantic plot depended on the actions of a narrative creation who was so obviously a puppet.
Otherwise, though, we have a romance seen primarily through the eyes of an unconventional male protagonist, and a very enjoyable one. It was a realistic, believable, and quite romantic story about two broken people who find their jagged edges fit together remarkably well.