Robert Knight is known throughout England as the paragon duke. Attempting to overcome his mother's legacy as the Hawscliffe Harlot, he tries to live his life by a certain moral code. In spite of his best efforts though, he couldn't help falling for the beautiful young wife of his father's old friend. Seeing first-hand the destruction of infidelity, Robert had always kept their relationship purely platonic, but he is still devastated when Lucy is tragically found dead. Robert does not believe that her death is the accident it seems, and when her widower reveals a suspicion that his nephew and heir, Dolph Breckinridge, is responsible, Robert is happy to take the lead in seeking justice for the elderly earl. Burning with a need for revenge himself, Robert sets about looking for a way to prove Dolph's involvement.
Lovely Belinda Hamilton is the object of Dolph's obsession, so much so that he has ruined her life in hopes that she will eventually have no choice but to turn to him. Because of Dolph's machinations, Belinda has lost her home to creditors, her beloved father is in debtor's prison, and after loosing her job at a girl's finishing school, she has been reduced to selling oranges on the street by day and mending shirts by night just to scrape out a meager living. Although men sometimes lewdly proposition her, Bel's dignity and virtue have remained intact. However, Bel's compassion for others in need, leaves her short on funds to pay her father's prison fees. When she approaches the warden to ask for an extension, he seems amenable and even offers her a ride home. Not wishing to anger the warden into causing trouble for her father, Bel reluctantly accepts, only to be accosted later that evening on the darkened street and brutally raped. Walking around in a daze, she is mistaken for a drunken prostitute and taken to a charitable mission. At the suggestion of a fellow resident there, Bel decides to take the only course of action she can think of to maintain her independence, becoming a courtesan. With her virtue now gone, she feels she has nothing left to loose, and perhaps if she is lucky, she will find a man who truly will be her protector. Filled with righteous indignation, Bel can think of no better way to get revenge on Dolph, the man who put her in this situation, than to show him that she prefers to be another man's mistress over being his wife.
After a few weeks of training from the most infamous courtesan in London, Bel becomes the new toast of the demimonde. While attending a party where Belinda is present, Robert can't help but notice the beauty or the way that Dolph seems to think he owns her. Knowing that Bel is Dolph's Achilles heel, Robert makes her an offer she can't refuse, act the part of his mistress in name only in hopes of manipulating a confession from Dolph about his involvement in Lucy's death. Still fearful of sharing a man's bed and knowing of Robert's honorable reputation, Bel eagerly accepts his proposition. The only problem is that their arrangement is only temporary, and the more time Bel spends in Robert's company, the more she realizes that he is the protector of her dreams and wants to stay with him as long as possible. She decides to set about using her newly learned courtesan skills to seduce him, so he will keep her even after their contract has ended. Bel exhibits an air of innocence for a woman who is supposedly so worldly, not to mention she is capable, intelligent, vibrant and compassionate, all qualities which Robert finds irresistible. Soon, what began as a seduction, turns into deep feelings of love for both of them, but Bel still harbors all the secrets of her past which threaten to ruin their budding relationship. As each secret is slowly revealed, Robert seems up to the challenge, but even if he can overlook everything, Bel knows that a real future between a duke and courtesan is all but impossible.
The Duke is, in all honesty, one of the best books I have read in quite some time. It contained many swoon-worthy moments, making it a truly romantic read, yet it also had enough angst and complexity to keep me on the edge of my seat, wondering how the author would pull off a happily-ever-after ending. I found the use of a courtesan, albeit a relatively innocent one, as the heroine, to be a rather unique element. I would not normally think of a "fallen woman" as heroine material, but in this case it worked for me because of the extenuating circumstances surrounding her choice of profession. I also found the details within the story about the lives of courtesans to be very interesting. I could appreciate the author's highlighting of the limited choices for women in that era, and it really made me think about what circumstances might lead a woman to make that kind of choice. I was quite impressed with the way Ms. Foley was able to deftly weave a number of real-life individuals, including some courtesans, into the narrative as secondary characters. I thought this added a great deal of depth and interest to the story. There were also some details of British politics of that time, but unlike a couple of other stories I read recently where I found the political element to be extremely dull, here I felt that it really added to the story in a rather profound but nuanced way.
In The Duke, Gaelen Foley has created a hero and heroine who were, in my opinion, both likable and memorable. I thought that Belinda was an incredibly strong, brave and courageous woman. Even though she had been victimized, she never allowed herself to be a victim, instead boldly facing those who had caused her harm, and in one case even showing compassion and forgiveness. Bel was a woman who had a tender heart and a deep sense of honor. Even when faced with becoming a courtesan as a matter of survival, she tried to maintain her dignity by upholding a certain moral code which I found admirable. I also loved that she would not bend that code even though it meant giving up the most important thing in her life, and ultimately, it was her resolve on this matter that led to Bel finally earning the respect that she so richly deserved. Robert was a kind, gentle and patient man with the heart of a romantic, yet he became Bel's protector not only in word but in deed as well. In fact, the level of fierceness that he reached to ensure Bel's protection, was rather surprising for this previously controlled and mild-mannered man. Robert was a man who was torn between love and duty, and as such, he could sometimes be a bit hard-headed. It was nice to see him grow and change, eventually breaking out of the mold he had been placed in by his father and the ton, allowing himself the freedom to experience his heart's desire. I absolutely loved the interactions between Robert and Bel. Their relationship was just thoroughly beautiful with each of them giving very generously, unselfishly, and in equal measure to one another, creating some very lovely and sensuous love scenes. I don't think I could have asked for a much more romantic and well-matched couple.
All in all, Gaelen Foley has an amazing writing style which contains so many wonderful nuances that make the reader feel as though they are actually experiencing the story as it happens. There were places in the narrative where I felt like she was holding something back, but after careful consideration, I think that it may have been intentional. I'm not precisely sure how Ms. Foley accomplished this, but as I read, I felt all the insecurity that I imagined Bel must have felt in her relationship with Robert, knowing that he was a duke and she a mere courtesan. There were times when I wasn't sure if I liked this, as I was expecting a grand and prefect romance, but I realized that it made me more aware of what a women in Bel's position might have really felt, making the story all the more realistic. Even though I wanted to be upset with Robert at times for his stubbornness and in one case, not seeing the obvious, I also understood his trepidation at the thought of further scandalizing his family name. When an author makes me think about and understand all the things that drive their characters to behave a certain way, I feel that they have done their job well.
I could not find much to truly criticize in this book, but one thing I thought could have been a bit stronger was the final reveal on the cause of Lucy's death. I felt that there was a bit too much justification surrounding it, and that it could have been written in such a way that this would not have been necessary. Overall though, it was a relatively minor part of the story that I was generally able to overlook. Also, the romantic in me would have liked Robert to come to his senses a little sooner or perhaps never have had to in the first place, but there were so many positive things that occurred during the time he and Bel were apart that I could hardly complain. Bel was able to regain her dignity and self-worth in full measure, while Robert was able to realize some very important things about Bel, as well as being able to reinvent himself and find freedom from his family's infamous legacy. As the end of the story approached, I was wondering how the author would redeem Robert's mistakes in a believable and forgivable way, but I needn't have worried. It ended with a grand romantic flourish and a two-for-one happily-ever-after that was absolutely breathtaking.
The Duke is the first book in the Knight Miscellany series. It briefly introduces Robert's brother Alec who becomes the hero of book #6, One Night of Sin, as well as their sister, Jacinda, and her companion, Lizzie, who become the heroines of book #4, Lady of Desire, and book #5, Devil Takes a Bride, respectively. Book #2, Lord of Fire, and book #3, Lord of Ice, feature twins, Lucien and Damien, respectively, as the heroes, and the final book #7, His Wicked Kiss has black sheep, Jack, as the hero. These three are also Robert's siblings and are mentioned by name in The Duke, but do not actually appear as secondary characters. I found The Duke to be a thoroughly engaging and romantic read that has earned a permanent place on my keeper shelf. It was the first book by Gaelen Foley that I have read, but certainly will not be my last. I am anxiously looking forward to reading the next book in the series as well as checking out her other works.
Note: As a warning to sensitive readers, there is an incidence of rape in the first chapter. It isn't particularly graphic, but it is emotionally intense. There is also an instance of rather brutal violence when Robert takes matters into his own hands to avenge Bel.
Update: After thoroughly enjoying a re-read of this book, I've decided to upgrade my rating to 5 stars. I wasn't as bothered by the denouement of the mystery element this time around, and I was more clearly able to see how the conflicts and what I perceived as stubbornness on Robert's part were actually part of some rather impressive character development. Not to mention, I was once again blown away by the emotions I felt while reading it. This is a more-than-worthy keeper that I may yet re-read again in the future.
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