Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Wicked Ways of a Duke," by Laura Lee Guhrke

The Chick: Prudence Bosworth, an overworked and underpaid seamstress who unexpectedly inherits her long-lost father's gargantuan department store fortune, under the stipulation that she marry within the year.
The Rub: She's the illegitimate child of a poor baronet's daughter and a man who ran away to America (and struck it big). Her grasping and neglectful relations, who never cared much about her when she was still the inconvenient bastard, swoop down out of the blue once she's made her millions to take over the responsibility of introducing her to society - and by society, they mean Prudence's dull cousin Robert.

The Dude:
Rhys de Winter, Duke of St. Cyres, an indolent, pampered aristocrat just returned from a scandalous tour of the continent to confront a mountain of debt and no money to pay it off with.
The Rub: Where to start? His father died a coke addict, his mother was a slut, his little brother hanged himself when he was twelve, and his Uncle Evelyn liked to played a mean game of Animal Grab...

The Plot:
Prudence: Life is so hard, I wish I were rich!

Lawyer: Congratulations! Your father is dead! You're a millionairess! As long as you find a husband within the year!

Prudence: Holy CRAP! Uh...I wish I had a sexy suitor?

Rhys: Do I smell money - er, I mean, beauty? Hey, baby.

Prudence: This is awesome - how many more wishes do I get?

Prudence's Grasping, Neglectful Relations: WE DO NOT APPROVE! The Duke of St. Cyres is broke! He's only after your money! He's a cad! And worst of all, he's not your cousin Robert!

Prudence: I don't care! I love him! I just wish I could know more about him.

Friend of Rhys' Who Shows Up At the Worst of Times: Like how he knew about your money from the start?

Prudence: .... Dammit! *breaks engagement*

Rhys: Prudence! I'm troubled! I'm a victim of childhood sexual abuse! And I love you!

Prudence: Damn that sexy troubled past! Fine, we'll marry, but against the stipulations of the will so we won't get any money!

Rhys: Fine with me. We'll survive on our love...

Prudence: PSYCH! We're still rich!

Rhys: ... love spread in caviar, dipped in gold and stuffed with sugared OWL BABIES! HOT DAMN!
Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Righteously Redeemed Rake

1 Heroine with Weight Issues

2 Very Bad Parents

2 Uncles with Unconventional Sexual Proclivities

1 Love Train

4 Gold-digging Relatives

2 Cameo Appearances from Previous Gurhke Characters (Emma and Harry! Hurrah!)

2 Trips to the Fishin' Hole (for fishing, you pervs!)

1 Romance Involving Secondary Characters (servants need love too)
The Word:
This is the second book in Gurhke's Girl-Bachelor series (which began with And Then He Kissed Her, and I think continues with The Secret Desires of a Gentleman), which seem to involve the tenants of a respectable ladies' lodging house run by the loyal Mrs. Morris.

Prudence is a lowly seamstress, earning her keep as best she can, and aided by a tiny allowance from relatives she hasn't seen for eleven years. She's right in the middle of getting bitched out by a nasty heiress while fixing her dress when rakish Duke Rhys de Winters shows up and plays the gallant card. Later that evening, she also witnesses him rescue a maid from being raped by a boorish peer, and leaves convinced of his heroism but certain no duke would deign to notice a seamstress.

However, unbeknownst to her, Rhys happily beds that same grateful and willing servant without a second thought. Rhys has spent that last few years using up his inheritance partying hardy in Europe, and has come home to find that his deceased Uncle Evelyn used up the rest. He's dirt poor, and while he can get by by shamelessly mooching off of his incredibly tolerant friends, he realizes that sooner or later he's going to have to marry an heiress or lose everything.

Prudence, meanwhile, gets smacked on the head with a Plot Device: her father, i.e. the man who abandoned her pregnant mother without marrying her, has died an obscenely wealthy man in America, and having had no other children, has left all of his fortune to her, under the stipulation that she marry within the year. Prudence thinks it's a dream come true -- for about five minutes. And then her Aunt and Uncle, who couldn't have cared less about her when she was just the poor family illegitimate, arrive in town with the aim of introducing her to society, all the "right people," and all the while keeping Prudence close to her limp noodle cousin Robert.

Rhys, shopping for heiresses at the opera, spots Prudence in the audience and is informed by a friend of his of Prudence's sudden good fortune. Dimly remembering their first encounter, he introduces himself and pretends ignorance of her changed situation. Prudence, of course, has already developed a high opinion of him and is delighted by his attentions, even more so because he doesn't appear to know about her money. Ironically, her grasping relations (entirely unaware of their own gold-digging tendencies) know exactly what St. Cyres is after.

So begins their courtship - with Rhys manipulating, spying, lying, and even blackmailing to maintain the charade until at last Rhys and Prudence are engaged. It is here, of course, that the story gets interesting. Prudence is head over heels for Rhys from the start, but it is Rhys who begins to change as he begins to fall in love with her. However, through his admittedly underhanded means of obtaining her affection, he's dug a mighty big hole for himself, and when the hammer comes down, it comes down hard.

This book impressed me in many ways, and in many ways also disappointed. First, the good parts: Rhys is finally a rake who does rakish things, and not just a man who claims to be a rake but really shies away from the morally-objectionable things that would lose him the reader's affection (like the ever-present "rake who'll never plunder an innocent" cliche). He lies, outright lies, at the very start for the sole purpose of gaining Prudence's interest because she is rich. He sees her as a romantic, day-dream addled nouveau riche and figures it'll be like taking candy from a baby. He follows that up by having his servant spy on her so he can "conveniently" show up at the same time, blackmailing her uncle into acquiescing to his marriage proposal, and snubbing Prudence at a ball for another woman in order to manipulate her emotions even further. Rhys is no saint at the beginning of the book, and that's a part of both the book's strengths and flaws.

Strength-wise, it adds significantly to the narrative tension. Rhys performs all of his dastardly deeds at first thinking only of himself, but just because he genuinely comes to love Prudence doesn't mean that all of his previous actions suddenly go away, becoming an interesting ticking time-bomb of dramatic irony that kept me reading. I'm not totally spoiling anything by saying that eventually, yes, Prudence finds out that he knew about her money all along - and, inconveniently enough, finds out right about the time that Rhys is on the cusp of professing his all-too-real adoration.

Of course, the flaws that this led to were the fact that I thought the solution at the end of the novel was far too easy. I've heard reviewers complain that Prudence seemed really way too naive to never suspect Rhys of knowing about her money, but I found I could deal with it. Her previous encounter with him, her first impression, had shaped the way she saw him and all of his actions seemed to corroborate it. However, the eventual revelation that he had lied should, according to her character, have pretty much completely destroyed her.

Before Rhys arrived, Prudence was convinced she was too old, too fat, too plain, but Rhys managed to convince her that she was beautiful, interesting, witty, and worthy of being loved. Thanks to that, Rhys' deception not only made annihilated her positive image of him, it leveled her positive image of herself - because Rhys had been the one to convince her she was special, but with his true (initial) motivations revealed, it cast shadows and aspersions on every happy moment they spent together.

Because of this, the way Rhys won her back (making a public announcement in the newspaper that he will marry her one day after the will deadline - thus marrying her after she's lost the money) seemed a bit simplistic to me - he may prove his intentions now, but could one newspaper interview really reverse all the distrust and doubt? The very ending (in the epilogue) does assuage this a bit with a clever move on Prudence's part but it doesn't eliminate the problem completely.

However, ultimately, I found the romance to be a sound one. As in And Then He Kissed Her, while both characters developed throughout the novel, one character had significantly more ground to cover than the other. In Kissed, it was Emma and her self-discovery. In Wicked, it's Rhys. Prudence had such a vaulted, heroic opinion of Rhys that he couldn't help but attempt to live up to it, and that was a pleasant plot element to read about. Prudence, in an unusual turn for a romance novel, declares her love for Rhys fairly early - and what the novel shows is Rhys' progression from dismissing this, to craving it, to believing it, and finally, to reciprocating it.B+.

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