|Twins, stolen inheritances, industrial spies and revenge - the stuff adventure tales are made of. As it turns out Duke of Scandal is more about emotions than cloak-and-dagger.
When Lady Olivia Shea is abandoned on her wedding night, she vows to track down her husband and demand the inheritance he stole. Not long after, she comes face to face with him at a ball in London. Only the man she challenges is not Edmund Carlisle, but his twin brother, Samson Carlisle, Duke of Durham.
Samson and his younger brother parted on extremely bad terms, several years ago, over a scandal in which Edmund pretended to be Samson. With his name already irredeemably sullied, the Duke isn't sure he can trust the beautiful Anglo-French perfume heiress. Like another woman in his past, she may be planning his downfall with his rake of a brother. But Olivia is the only person who can help him find his brother's whereabouts. They soon decide that the only way to force the rat out of his hole is by using his tricks. Samson will pretend to be Edmund and return with Olivia to Paris, where she manages a perfume shop patronized by Empress Eugenie. Their trip roots out a tangled nest of villains, whose mastermind also has the means to destroy Samson's and Olivia's emerging love.
Such a set-up intimates enough conflict and complications to keep the ball rolling throughout. Unfortunately, too much time is spent in the beginning on the characters' internal conflicts, a tendency that makes Olivia far too much of a fragile victim. It isn't until the second half of the novel that the pacing picks up. Only then can the reader delight in the turn-around, the payback and the heroine's ability to play circumstances to her own advantage. Samson, on the other hand, remains a tortured hero throughout. Though his emotions are very intense, I never completely warmed to him; nor did I find him distinctive.
While the villains verge on the melodramatic, I was intrigued about Edmund, whose final deeds remain ambiguous in their intent. I shut the book wondering whether love had really reformed him or whether he was still up to his old tricks. If this adds a new dimension to an otherwise predictable book, the fact that a secondary character - and a villain to boot - holds my interest much more than the hero doesn't bode too well for the romance.
I also take issue with several plot points, which seem highly unlikely given the close social networks of mid-century France. Since I cannot spell out these problems without revealing important twists, I will dwell instead on another irritation: a tendency to change the point of view frequently, sometimes even several time in the course of one paragraph. Aside from disturbing my sense of good style, more often than not these shifts obliged me to reread the paragraph, thereby interrupting my appreciation of the story.
On the other hand, it was a pleasure to plunge into something other than Regency England. Ashworth's description of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's France is sparse but evocative, giving me a hankering for more. Perhaps this desire may be satisfied in the next book in her trilogy of adventure-seeking bachelors. With a hero who has a past in forgery and a present in government spying, it may well be more fulfilling than this one.