Narrated by Mary Jane Wells
Tessa Dare’s The Duchess Deal is the first book in her new Girl Meets Duke series, and – oh, joy! – it’s narrated by Mary Jane Wells. Her ability to bring out the humour in the texts she narrates combines very well with Ms. Dare’s ability to put the humour there in the first place, and – if you can get past the somewhat implausible premise of a duke marrying a seamstress – the combination makes for a very entertaining listen.
Emma Gladstone is a seamstress in dire financial straits who had relied on the fact the wedding dress she made for the future Duchess of Ashbury would be seen by the entire ton, thus garnering her a hefty fee, and, more importantly, bringing her more work from the great ladies who saw it. But the wedding has been called off, and with her rent due and creditors thumping on her door, Emma takes the bull by the horns, puts the dress on and marches right into the no-longer-bridegroom’s house to ask for her fee.
The Duke of Ashbury can’t credit the effrontery of the young woman who dares to appear before him demanding money dressed in what he can only describe as looking “like unicorn vomit. Or the pelt of some snow beast rumored to menace the Himalayas.” During the somewhat unusual conversation that ensues, Ashbury – Ash – makes a spur of the moment decision. Miss Gladstone is young, pretty, healthy, well-educated, in urgent need of money, and quite possibly desperate enough to consider sharing a bed with a scarred horror of a man such as he. His former intended broke their engagement upon seeing the damages wrought upon his face and body by war, but he needs an heir and for that he needs a wife. Any wife will do, as long as she abides by his rules; shagging only at night, no emotional commitments, don’t mention the war, no lights, no talking and after she’s pregnant he’ll pack her off to the house he’ll give her in the country and they need never see each other again.
It will come as no surprise that Emma is wary of and rather offended at the duke’s acerbic manner and barrage of vague and not-so-vague insults. She declines, takes her money and leaves – only for the duke to turn up at the shop a day later, as officious – and irreverent – as ever in order to ask her again to become his duchess. Emma has already admitted to herself that, scars and all, she is fascinated by Ash, that she can still feel the warmth of his touch where he had grasped her arm the day before and the strength of the connection between them… she also recognises that marriage is her best hope of security through the years and that his offer to give her a house of her own well away from London will enable to help a friend who has been seduced and left pregnant by her lover.
So Emma becomes the Duchess of Ashbury just a few days later.
What follows is a predictable, yet banter-filled, sexy and often very funny romance as Emma, a young woman with a lot of love to offer, gradually worms her way into Ash’s life and heart. Both of them try to remain aloof, and it’s a lot of fun listening to them failing miserably as they slowly succumb to the intensity of the attraction building between them. The dialogue simply zings back and forth effortlessly and the two principals are engaging and well-drawn characters. Life hasn’t been kind to Emma, forcing her to rebuild her life after being cast out by her father, while Ash’s injuries have made him bitter and angry, his once agile wit now turned to sarcasm and rudeness. He hides his true nature and his vulnerabilities, presenting himself as an arrogant, uncaring and grouchy individual who cares nothing for society’s opinion of him and is only too ready to accept their view of him as some kind of monster.
Amid all the flirty banter and the steamy love scenes, The Duchess Deal is a story about coming to terms with and accepting who you are and letting go of the things that don’t matter. I enjoyed listening to Emma gradually coaxing Ash to a better opinion of himself and while the ballroom scene near the end is perhaps a bit cheesy, it works to show how far he has come from the grumpy, sarcastic recluse we first met. Well, he’s still grumpy and sarcastic – that doesn’t change! – and I wouldn’t have him any other way.
Mary Jane Wells’ interpretation of Ash as this irascible, waspish, incredibly quick-witted man with a tongue that can wound at twenty paces is a real highlight in what is an extremely strong performance overall. I found myself thinking that it would have been so easy for her to have fallen into “brooding hero” mode, but instead she plays up the humour, contributing to the impression of Ash as Teflon coated, someone who doesn’t give a damn because the worst has already happened and there’s nothing left to care about. Underneath it all, of course, he feels things deeply, and Ms. Wells also does a great job in conveying the vulnerability beneath the sarcasm and teasing. She’s particularly good at performing romantic comedy, and there’s no question The Duchess Deal gives her plenty of great material to work with. Her pacing and differentiation are excellent; Khan the Indian butler is wonderfully dignified and every bit as good at throwing out the dry bon mot as his master, while Emma’s maid is delightfully and almost breathlessly optimistic about the possibility of the duke and his new duchess falling in love. Emma’s rather eccentric friends are all easy to tell apart and Ms. Wells performs Emma perfectly; this is a resilient, capable young woman with a great capacity for love and compassion in spite of the crappy hand life has dealt her. It’s an accomplished, nuanced performance that kept me completely engaged through the few parts of the book where the pacing flagged a little.
I wasn’t wild about the couple of sub-plots in the story – one of which was largely unnecessary – but ultimately this is typical Tessa Dare and if you like her work, you’ll like this. The book is fairly modern in tone, but it’s such a lot of fun that it’s easy to just go with the flow and enjoy it for what it is; a few hours of very well-written fluff with some great banter and sexytimes.
TITLE: The Duchess Deal
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare
NARRATED BY: Mary Jane Wells
GENRE: Historical Romance
STEAM FACTOR: Glad I had my earbuds in
REVIEWER: CazBuy The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare on Amazon EXCERPT: