A title caught my attention the other day, The Art of Duke Hunting. Huh, cute. So I read a bit of the first chapter while on my break and wound up buying it. I then realized that it was book two in the series...oops.
The Dukes of Norwich are a cursed line. The first Duke incurred the wrath of a witch (maybe?) by accusing her of witchcraft when she spurned him (he brought some icky fowl instead of jewelry, I'd refuse him, too). Since then there have been seventeen dukes in only 200 years, an unprecedented rate of inheritance, and a good number of the first sixteen met their ends in duck and/or fowl related incidents (the others either lost duels or died fighting Napoleon). The seventeenth Duke of Norwich, Roman Montagu, is determined that he will be the absolute last duke of his accursed line. There are no brothers (Roman's elder brother died in a sailing accident), no secondary lines, no exceedingly distant male cousins, and Roman is determined never to father a child.
That's just the prologue. The plot opens on Roman's worst nightmare - a ship in a storm - and the poor man has no idea how he got there. Worse, one wrist is tied to the deck. Before a wave can wash him away he is rescued by the Esme, the Countess of Derby, and they shelter together in her cabin (and not in separate corners, either). When the damaged ship puts in at the Isle of Wight Roman learns how he came to be on board: at the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties, held by the royal entourage, the Duke of Kress put Roman on the ship as some sort of absinthe-fueled joke. Unfortunately for Esme (who prefers to be called March) and Roman the biggest gossip in England, Mr. King, was also aboard ship so by the time they make it back to London their goose is cooked: they must marry.
So, in short, I liked the book. Roman and Esme's romance is both sweet (how they both actually care about one another, despite actual appearances) and disturbing (Roman's jealousy; though, in all seriousness I thought Topher was gay because all the women felt rather safe around him, but I guess he was merely waiting to retire before scoring a lady?). Love all the duck/duke humor. Who knew Regency England was so full of duck paraphernalia?
I only have one quibble with the plot (OK, two - and these are total spoilers so skip this paragraph, alright?):
1. The twist at the end of the book where it is revealed that Roman is, in fact, not the son of the 16th duke but that of an Italian sculptor is pointless. Worse, it detracts from Roman's ability to overcome his fear/superstition and live out his live despite his notorious family history. It makes the entire I-sailed-a-yacht-through-a-storm-to-rescue-my-wife-despite-the-curse feeling of triumph dead in the water. Boo.
2. And speaking of the Norwich curse how did the original "witch" actually have legitimate children? I was assuming that her accusation/death came very close on her refusal of Norwish I's offer making it less likely that she had children at all. So that would make Esme less of a granddaughter and more of a niece/cousin of some type. So the "direct descendant" business doesn't quite make sense to me. Also, it's an unneccessary plot point because by the time it's revealed he's already learned his true parentage.
With all the whispering about Alexander Barclay, the new Duke of Kress and Roman's good friend, I had to read the first book Between the Duke and the Deep Blue Sea. The prologue is a glorious detailing of all the naughtiness the royal entourage got up but left out just enough detail to leave the reader hanging (Candover left his bride at the altar, someone's maid is missing, Candover's sister is sent home in disgrace, one of the dukes got secretly married, Barry's got a mysterious dead man, Candover and Abshire have a longstanding animosity, etc). Alex is the nitwit that supplied the group with all the absinthe which caused all the debauchery. As a result, the populace is starting to question whether the aristocracy is even necessary. Prinny immediately goes on the defensive and orders all the dukes to straighten up and get married. Alex is the first - exiled to his Cornwall estate to await the matchmaking mamas he finds Roxanne Vanderhaven clinging to a sea cliff for dear life.
Her husband tried to push her to her death. Nice guy. Alex rescues her and....romance!
I had a little trouble with the final twist (sorry, SPOILER again): the convenient-death-of-Roxanne's-skeezebag-husband obligatory plot twist followed by that monstrously silly courtroom scene where everybody and nobody confessed to killing him....good Lord. Nash should have just let Paxton steal Alex's water-shy horse, get thrown off/drowned, and been done with it instead of having him steal the horse AND someone shoot him. Actually, that sounds suspiciously similar to my issue with The Art of Duke Hunting. Hmmmm.
Beyond that, this was an enjoyable novel. Alex and Roxanne make a good couple and it was nice to see them fight through Prinny's orders to get their HEA. I'm really looking forward to the other books in the series (maybe six in total?), so books for Candover, Abshire, Sussex, and Barry. Maybe a seventh for Isabelle if she doesn't wind up being the heroine in one of the dukes (which she seriously might since it seems she has a bad crush on one of them).
(Side note on that absinthe: as a drink it was not popular until the 1840s and the major distilleries in France opened only a few years before this novel opens in late 18th/early 19th century. The likelihood that Alex's fully English cousin had a cellar-full both in London and the Mount when it needed to be smuggled I find a little implausible. I know it's a hair-splitting detail but I read a lot of articles on absinthe and opium when writing a paper about addiction in Victorian literature. If Nash needed a black-out level party she could have had them drink a load of nasty whiskey; it feels like the absinthe was used for the exotic-ness.)