Thursday, March 30, 2017

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess by Julia Justiss

I loved the first book of Julia Justiss's Hadley's Hellions series, Forbidden Nights with the Viscount, so I was eagerly looking forward to reading Stolen Encounters with the Duchess. Justiss has done the rare thing of following one good book with another.

Faith is the widowed duchess of the Duke of Ashedon. She has three children by him and now lives in London with his dragon of a mother and is being menaced by her brother-in-law. She was so cowed over the course of her marriage—her vibrancy and vitality so diminished—that she's still a timid thing at the start of the story. Her gradual growth and assertiveness in the book were very interesting to see.

David Tanner is a rising Member of Parliament—some think he might even become Prime Minister—and one of the architects of the Reform Bill that will give the common man some say in the government. The bill stands in good stead to pass the House of Commons; the House of Lords is an entirely different matter. So Davie is involved in a lot of politicking along with the four friends, who're known as the Hellions since their Oxford days. He's a loyal friend, a hard worker, a passionate believer in people's rights, and deeply honorable.

But this is also Davie: After having to restrain himself around buffoons all day, the prospect of being able to deliver a few good whacks raised his spirits immensely. Heh! He's trying to rescue an unknown woman from her molesters—a knight on a charger with a big heart.

Faith and Davie had met one summer when she was sixteen and he was twenty. She was visiting her sister, whose husband was his sponsor. They had developed a great friendship then discussing all kinds of things and sharing many laughs together. She grew very fond of him; he fell in love with her. She returned home and married her duke during her first season. He turned his attention to politics, while the embers of his love still burned in his heart.

They have met again now, completely coincidentally, and Davie finds himself as much in love with her as before and her widowed status makes her unbearably tempting. Faith, in turn, is delighted to be meeting her childhood friend and wants desperately to have him in her life as her friend. And so they begin a tender friendship.

In the meantime, Davie has acquired some land including a well-to-do farm (that was his childhood farm) and a regular income through some well-placed sinecures. He's certainly not wealthy, but comfortable, and well able to support a wife in some style. Yet, Faith's immense wealth as a duchess stands in the way of his thinking she could become his.

Even worse is the vast social gulf between them. He's the jumped-up farmer's orphan and she is a duchess. A marriage between them would be a great mésalliance for her resulting in immediate and total social ostracization. She would move down to his level of society; he would not move up to hers. Davie drowns in this gulf and his self-esteem is at a low ebb because of this. Justiss shows very well how he grows into his own sense of self-worth over the course of the book.

One consequence of the mésalliance is very real. The trustees of her three children—in particular, the eight-year-old now Duke of Ashedon—could very well assume that she's not of sound mind to even contemplate such a relationship and remove the children from her care. Faith would not survive that and he would never put her in a position to choose between him and her children.

I enjoyed seeing how Davie and Faith wrestle with real-life problems that felt historically true to their laws, society, and culture, and work to solve them.

At one point, Davie feels so beset by thwarted love and sexual frustration, hemmed in by the laws of the land and societal norms, and pulled in every direction by Faith's needs that he becomes short with Faith, and I thought: "Bravo!" Anger is as normal a human reaction as is desire or affection, but romance novels so rarely have the courage to have their characters behave in that fashion with each other once affection and an acknowledgment of interest have been established. Davie is trying so very hard to be honorable to Faith and to himself, and it is a huge struggle for him to fight his body and his heart, but his mind rules his passions, and I found that incredibly romantic of him. On the other hand, I found Faith more in thrall to her emotions and to the power she knows she has over him. I did not think badly of Faith for behaving in that fashion; she's just being true to her character and Davie doesn't think badly of her either. However, he does remonstrate with her when it becomes unbearable for him, and Faith does feel chastised enough to want to be better about it.

An aside: I really liked that once the villain was routed, he was not resurrected to add a clichéd black moment to the story.

My one quibble with the book was the falseness of the political interest that Faith pretends to have. It feels like a plot device to throw Davie and Faith together, rather than a well-developed interest on Faith's part. I didn't mind the setup: She used to discuss politics when they first met, but had to suppress her interest, like much else, under the dominance of her husband, and now she could let that interest flower again. But Faith actually does so little to develop that interest. Here, she had the perfect opportunity in the guise of a rising MP, who's devoted to her. I would've liked to have seen her do more with this interest or to develop some other passion, other than just being concerned over her sons. I felt that this aspect of Faith could've been developed more.

But this is a minor point in an otherwise stellar novel. Have you read a Julia Justiss novel? If so, do you have recommendations for me? If you haven't read one, do start with Forbidden Nights.