Tristan Gatewick, the Duke of Shelbourne, has put off marrying for far too long. Now he must find a wife soon to produce an heir to his title, and everyone knows that he is the most eligible bachelor in England. Too bad that all the silly, vapid chits who keep dropping their handkerchiefs and fans at his feet in an effort to gain his attentions are driving him mad. Until he accidentally steps on the fan of one young woman who didn't seem to mind nor want his attention at all. In fact, the beguiling creature had the gall to run away from him.
Tessa Mansfield has a reputation for matchmaking, but not just any matches, only ones for true love. Yet, because of things that happened in the past, she has vowed never to marry herself. One look into Tristan's beautiful blue eyes sets her heart fluttering. She's spent her entire adult life avoiding men like him, but when he asks her to make a match for him, Tessa doesn't know if she can keep her emotions in check. She comes up with an elaborate scheme in which Tristan will court twenty-four eligible young ladies, eliminating several each week until he chooses just one. The only problem is the stubborn, cynical duke doesn't believe in love, but Tessa is up to the challenge of opening his icy heart. She just never intended for him to fall in love with her, and the more time they spend in close proximity conducting the courtship, the less she can deny own heart's desire.
Debut author Vicky Dreiling started off the new year with a bang for me with her first novel, How to Marry a Duke. In it, she created two likable and relatively complex characters with whom I enjoyed taking a journey to true love and happiness. Her historical spoof of the reality TV show, The Bachelor, was cute. It gave the story some lighthearted moments with a few of the courtship elements being laugh-out-loud funny. Yet it wasn't all fun and games. There was also a nice mix of angst and emotion as the hero and heroine both battle past hurts and scandals to find their way to an HEA. The author is very deft at teasing the reader with Tristan and Tessa's issues, so much so that by the time I finally got to the reveal, particularly of Tessa's secrets, I was absolutely dying to know. While I can't say that I was particularly surprised by the revelations from the past, Ms. Dreiling did make events more complicated than I was expecting, making it very easy for me to sympathize. Overall, How to Marry a Duke was a highly enjoyable read.
Tristan begins the story as an unrepentant rake who is highly cynical about love. He amused me early on with his overly logical brain which rejects the notion that true love could possibly be real. Yet, I believe he fell for Tessa instantly and irrevocably from the moment he accidentally stepped on her fan and looked up into the most beguiling face he'd ever seen. It just took him a long time to realize it, and watching him squirm while he figured that out was half the fun of the story. He was definitely one of those stubborn alphas who was totally brought to his knees by a little thing called love. When it came to the courtship, I liked that Tristan wanted more than a simpering, vapid chit to be his wife, and I was very pleasantly surprised by his willingness to pledge fidelity to whomever he chose, even though he didn't believe it would be a love match. I did doubt Tristan a bit in the beginning of the courtship when he seemed to be paying more attention to the "pretty girls," but he came around fairly quickly and proved that he had a good heart and could be fair to all the girls, recognizing that even the less physically attractive ones still had other admirable qualities. Tristan was quite the seductive charmer, but he could also be rather brooding. Best of all he was an incredibly honorable man, always trying to do right by everyone for whom he felt responsible. Tristan was certainly a very appealing hero and one who has earned a spot on my favorites list.
Tessa is a bit of a bluestocking, asserting the enjoyment of her independence and her matchmaking career as the main reasons for having no desire to marry, but no one knows that she harbors a painful secret that makes her feel unworthy of marriage. Instead, she chooses to live vicariously through the couples she matches. Underneath it all, it's obvious that she is a romantic, because she will only make love matches. The Duke, however, proves to be one of her biggest challenges, but she feels up to the task of opening his heart to love. Tessa is a rather plump heroine who doesn't consider herself to be particularly attractive, and it doesn't help when she overhears some biting remarks about her weight from a couple of the young ladies vying for Tristan's hand. All of this gives her a feeling of special responsibility to the wallflowers and unattractive ladies who no one seems to want to court. I liked that Tristan was able to make her feel beautiful. He was thoroughly entranced by her voluptuous figure and thought she was the loveliest woman he'd ever seen from the moment he first laid eyes on her. Tessa was a very sweet, kindhearted and thoughtful heroine who loved Tristan so much she was willing to give him up to save him from further hurt and scandal.
In addition to Tristan and Tessa, there were some very memorable secondary characters. At first, I was uncertain about Tristan's mother. She seemed rather cold and controlling, but it didn't take long for her to turn into an enigma with her belief in true love and apparent desire for her son to marry for love. Lady Shelbourne was a complicated character and the author definitely kept me guessing about her motives. The two bridal candidates who made it to the final round were both appealing in their own way, and I can't help but wonder if there might be stories for them somewhere down the line. Most notable of all was Tristan's best friend, Hawk, a rogue who could charm the stockings off any lady he wanted, but firmly asserted his love of bachelorhood. Much like Tristan though, this rake is about to fall and for none other than Tristan's sister, Julianne, a nice young lady who obviously only has eyes for him. I'm very much looking forward to reading their story, How to Seduce a Scoundrel, when it comes out in August 2011.
I can't wrap up my review without making special mention of my favorite scene in the entire book. The proposal was absolutely beyond amazing. It was so beautifully romantic, it left me with no doubt that Tristan loved Tessa to distraction. Not to mention, it had me crying so hard, you'd think I was the one being proposed to. I rarely cry when reading, but if I do, it's usually because of something sad or heartbreaking. I think this may mark the first time that I've actually cried happy tears over a book. Two things made it so lovely, one being the realization that Tristan had grown so dramatically from a resentful, cynical man who didn't believe in love into a man who wasn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and proved it by making a grand, romantic gesture that was unforgettable. The other thing is that the proposal seems to be a romantic element that often gets overlooked. Typically, in my experience of reading romance, it is either non-existent or it's a rather simple affair that doesn't stick with me. In How to Marry a Duke, Vicky Dreiling took the time and care to create one of the most memorable and romantic proposals I've ever read.
The plot itself is fairly fast-paced with lots of dialog, perhaps a little too much at times, because it occasionally seemed to drag a bit. Once in a while, I thought it could have used a few more details and introspection. The book isn't particularly steamy and normally this wouldn't bother me, but I couldn't help feeling just a tad disappointed that the final consummation wasn't a bit spicier after waiting so long to get there. In the grand scheme of things, these were little more than minor annoyances some of which may show Ms. Dreiling's greenness as an author and will probably work themselves out down the road as she gains more experience. Overall, I was always eager to get back to reading the book each time I had to put it down. For various reasons, I can see why How to Marry a Duke might not work for some readers, but personally, I was enchanted by its wonderful mixture of humor and emotion. I thought that it was an excellent debut novel, and I'll be eagerly waiting with bated breath for Ms. Dreiling's next release.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Book Group, in exchange for my review.
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