The middle of three daughters, Lady Hester Pimblett knows that she cannot compare to her sisters' beauty. Always the wallflower, she resigned herself to likely never attracting a husband and instead found work as a ladies' companion to the Duchess of Barroughby. Although the Duchess can be difficult, Hester is content with her life at Barroughby Hall until the Duchess's stepson, the Duke, returns home after a lengthy absence. Hester is aware of his reputation that has been tainted with scandal, but as she gets to know him, she recognizes a kindred spirit, a man who is as lonely as she, herself, often is. As she observes his actions, she becomes more and more convinced that he couldn't possibly be as dissolute and rakish as everyone says he is and finds herself falling for him.
The taint of scandal follows Adrian Fitzwalter wherever he goes. There is no love lost between him and his stepmother, nor with his half-brother, who everyone thinks is the golden child, but who harbors many dark secrets. Adrian's unsavory reputation is largely undeserved, but after an incident in his past that caused harm to others, he feels that it's his just penance. He made a deathbed promise to his father to always look out for his half-brother and he intends to see it through no matter the personal cost. But when he meets Lady Hester and sees what a kind, compassionate woman she is, he believes she may be the one person who can save him from his past mistakes. However, the protector in Adrian may find the cost to Hester's own reputation from associating with the likes of him too high of a price to pay.
The Dark Duke is the second book in Margaret Moore's Most Unsuitable Men series, and another Harlequin Historical that's been languishing on my TBR bookshelf ever since I was a subscriber to the Harlequin book service eons ago. I'd generally enjoyed the two books I'd previously read by this author, so I was looking forward to this one, and overall it was a pretty good read. It tells the story of Adrian, a young duke who has earned a somewhat undeserved bad reputation as the The Dark Duke because of all the scandals in which he's been embroiled. He's paired with Hester, an intelligent, bookish young woman who is acting as a ladies' companion to Adrian's stepmother. An attraction begins simmering soon after they meet, as each of them sees the hidden depths in one another, but a great deal of family drama ensues when Adrian's dissolute half-brother, Elliot, returns home and stirs up some trouble between them.
Adrian deeply loved both of his parents, but after his mother's death and his father's subsequent remarriage, he didn't always get on well with his stepmother. Then his father passed on, too, but before he died, he extracted a death bed promise from Adrian to look out for and protect his younger half-brother. Wracked with guilt because of an unfortunate incident that occurred when he was at Oxford and feeling that the scandal of it somehow caused his father's death, he felt it was his duty and just penance to comply. Adrian hasn't always been an entirely upstanding member of society, but his reputation as The Dark Duke is mostly undeserved. Because of the promise he made, he's spent the ensuing years cleaning up his brother, Elliot's messes and taking most of the blame for his bad behavior. After one such ugly incident, Adrian returns home to his country estate to find that his stepmother has hired a new companion. The young woman isn't the most attractive female he's ever seen, but as he gets to know her, he recognizes the kind, generous person she is and can't help falling for her. Because of his past, though, he doesn't feel he's good enough for her, and when Elliot comes home, too, Adrian worries that his brother might either ruin her or try to steal her if he lets his feelings be known. Adrian has made some mistakes in the past, not the least of which is coddling Elliot, but underneath it all, he's an honorable man who had good intentions that went astray. He also sees beyond the plain outer wrapping to the beauty inside Hester and knows that she's exactly what he needs to help him become a better man.
Hester is the middle child in a trio of sisters and the only one of the three who ended up being rather plain. As such, she was always the wallflower, the smart, bookish young woman who would really rather be reading or learning, except that her father held no store in furthering her education. She's accepted her lot in life graciously and doesn't dwell on her lack of beauty, but she's a realist who chose the path of becoming a ladies' companion when it appeared that she was unlikely to find a suitable husband who would love her for herself. When Adrian returns home, Hester is wary of him at first, because his reputation precedes him. But she's a perceptive woman who gradually figures out that Adrian doesn't deserve much of the scorn that society has heaped upon him. Even when he finally reveals some of the darker parts of his past, she's very understanding and compassionate. She also senses that, despite his charming veneer, Elliot is not the person he appears to be on the surface or the person his mother believes him to be. Hester is an intelligent woman who sees the things that others miss and gently pushes Adrian to be a better man. There were a couple of times, I worried that she might make the wrong choice that could lead to trouble, but I'm happy to report that she always uses her excellent discernment to do the right thing.
Overall, The Dark Duke was a pretty good read. It's a little slow-paced in the beginning, but around the halfway mark, it picked up a bit. I like how Margaret Moore writes strong, intelligent women and men who appreciate them for more than their outward appearance. Her couples always seem to compliment each other well, and Adrian and Hester are no exception. I'd say that my main issue with the story that dropped the star was that the romance is somewhat overshadowed by the family drama between Adrian and Elliot. It's the main source of conflict and sometimes stifled the romance because of Adrian's fear that Elliot might try something with Hester if he knew how much Adrian cared for her. Also it takes up so much page time that there simply isn't a lot of room for crafting that all-important emotional connection. Adrian and Hester's relationship is built mostly on their individual intuitiveness about the other one, rather than actual romantic interludes. It's admittedly a fairly strong foundation, but there was still a little something missing for me. There are no love scenes, either overt or implied, which isn't usually a major detractor for me except when there's not a lot else going on with regards to the romance. However, despite the weakness in the romantic pairing, I still managed to enjoy the story. The final book of the Most Unsuitable Men trilogy, The Rogue's Return, is going to be Elliot's story, but given his bad behavior, I'm not sure how eager I am to read it. The author is going to have her work cut out for her redeeming him to my satisfaction. I probably will pick it up at some point since I've had mostly good experiences with this author's work so far. I just might not be in a hurry to get to it.
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