The Duke of Ashbury needs a wife—any wife, really. Terribly disfigured on the battlefield, the once handsome duke has retreated to his own solitude and never appears in the light of day. But he needs an heir, and the prospect of venturing into London’s brutal social scene with a face that makes children weep doesn’t appeal. So when seamstress Emma Gladstone shows up on his doorstep one evening—in a wedding dress, no less—he does the logical thing and immediately proposes marriage. Emma is no idiot: any ideals of romance she once harbored have been summarily dispatched, and the wealth and title of duchess has its merits. But can she agree to the deal the duke is offering, even if it means submitting to a loveless future?
The Duchess Deal launches Tessa Dare’s new Girl Meet Duke series on a solid note. Dare takes the tortured hero/heroine with a past formula and adds freshness with her witty characterizations, fine supporting cast and honest depiction of two strangers learning to trust and love each other. It’s a long journey though. Ashbury makes clear several rules: they will only be husband and wife under the cover of darkness and in bed; once she has delivered his heir, they need not share a bed again, and there will be absolutely no kissing. Having been brutally rejected by his fiancée, Ash is under no illusions that he can make another woman love the monster that he sees himself as. Emma, naturally, has other ideas. There’s something about the duke that suggests he might be drawn out of his depression, and Emma insists on setting some of her own rules. There will be dinners together, conversation, and possibly a lighted candle or two in the bedroom. She’s not a pushover, having managed to set up a life for herself despite a traumatic rejection of her own. But helping Ash back into society means taking her rightful place among the matrons for whom she was sewing gowns just weeks earlier. And for that, she’s going to need the duke on her arm, in front of London’s ton.
I liked both Emma and Ash as people, Dare doing an excellent job drawing out their spirited natures underneath the insecurities. The story is hardly new or surprising and there’s a bit of silliness about Ash’s late night walks, but’s really the company of Emma and Ash that makes the book. The supporting players, particularly Emma’s circle of unorthodox friends, suggest fertile storylines for future volumes. The next one, featuring Emma’s friend Alexandra, is due out in late summer 2018.