Caroline Linden's new series, The Truth About the Duke, was recommended to me by someone...possibly Eloisa James's BN column or her twitter feed, I don't remember which. The premise for the series caught my attention immediately:
The recently deceased Duke of Durham his left a doozy of a mess for his three sons: a blackmailer who insinuates that the Duke was once married as a young man (long before he ever knew he was the heir to the dukedom), never divorced/had the marriage annulled, and the unknown lady may have still been alive when he married his duchess. Le scandale!! The inheritance is thrown up in question and the future of the de Lacey's hangs in the balance.
Now Edward, the second son, is the man with the head for business and legal affairs, and he decides to spearhead their legal case. To that end he hires London's top attorney away from the widowed Lady Francesca Gordon. Francesca is, predictably, upset because she needs the attorney to help her gain custody of her niece (she is convinced that the girl is being mistreated by her step-mother). Edward also makes the mistake of confiding in his empty-headed fiancee who promptly tells her father who sells the story to the press, leading to the scandalous Durham Dilemma as it is soon called. When an angry Francesca confronts him, Edward has no choice but to help her find her niece, solving Francesca's problems while preparing evidence that the de Lacey sons hold the best claim to the dukedom (as opposed to their pompous cousin from some lesser branch). Although Edward is a hard man to read at times - all logic and precision - the more time he and Francesca spend together the more they come to like each other. Well, you know, One Night in London....
I liked how Linden brought together pieces of the Durham Dilemma puzzle, not enough to solve the mystery but enough by the end of the book for Edward to pass it off the Charles (who is an annoying lazybones for much of the book), and brought Francesca's custody case to a nice end without death-defying fireworks of any sort. It allowed the romance plot to come to the forefront. Very nice.
Dashing Captain Gerard de Lacey, the youngest brother, takes it upon himself to track down the blackmailer in Bath (evidence points to the spa town). First, though, he keeps an assignation at an inn where he receives a surprising but welcome offer, a marriage of convenience to a rich ridow, an act he had been considering on the off-chance the brothers lose the court case. Lady Katherine Howe married up, a number of levels up from her country beginnings, to a womanizing viscount in need of her sizeable dowry. Now that the odious husband is deceased, she is being pressured by her mother and nephew-by-marriage to marry the heir - the nephew, obviously - for her still-very large fortune. Kate has nursed a tendre for Gerard for years, ever since he gave her a ride home on his horse during a rain storm, and she feels that, if she must marry again for convenience, it might as well be him. Besides, as all the gossip has it, he may be in need of a fortune soon if his brother doesn't inherit. Gerard accepts her offer, the two are married, and soon ensconced in Bath: Kate to worry whether Gerard will leave her behind in England and return to his regiment and Gerard to track down his blackmailer. We'll just Blame it on Bath.
Kate is an interesting character. She is convinced she's sexually unappealing - her mother constantly says so, she's been led to believe that drab, unshapely dresses "suit" her (also, by said mother who fears losing male attention to her daughter), and all this goes to "prove" why her first husband kept a string of expensive mistresses and condemned his young wife to a barren, empty bed. What a treat to watch as Kate gradually emerges from her shell. She learns to like shopping and enjoy pretty things, she starts to move a little more in society, to have friends, and, although there's a little set-back when Mommie Dearest arrives (awful old bat, and, much as I would have sent her packing, its understandable why Mommie Dearest's mental abuse undoes some of Kate's progress) Gerard manages to convince her that she's more than attractive. Gerard is a bit of a departure, too. Although it's obvious he's a gorgeous, appealing, charming man in a military uniform he also has a rock-solid decency (think Captain Frederick Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion) and he sets out to please Kate even when he doesn't quite understand her reticence. There are also some funny bits that remind me of scenes from another Austen novel, Northanger Abbey. The blackmail letters/ledger plot was a bit convoluted - I still don't understand how Durham could have been legally married if the priest didn't have a license - but it got another piece of the puzzle for Charles.
The concluding book, The Way to a Duke's Heart, will publish in August. In the meantime, one can enjoy the novella I Love the Earl - a Georgian prequel in which the story of the de Laceys' formidable Aunt Margaret's whirlwind romance is recounted.