A Noble Heart

His Scandalous Duchess
by Sara Blayne
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) 0-8217-6694-5
His Scandalous Duchess has a capable, intelligent heroine and a gallant, protective hero who light up the romance of the story. Unfortunately, the mystery aspect of the book is overly confusing with a resolution that didn't answer all of my questions.

Althea Wintergreen lives a mostly contented life with five-year-old Effie in the Old Mill House. It is in the Lake District and very near the Briersly estate where she, her sister, and her parents lived until she was eight. She and her sister, Gloriana, returned to the area just before Effie was born. Gloriana is now married to a Viscount and living in London and despite the snubbing Althea receives from a number of the village people, she is unconcerned about her status as a fallen woman.

Lucius Keene, Duke of Traherne, knows that he needs to marry and produce and heir. He has put it off as long as possible because he remembers how awful his parents' marriage had been. His mother had abandoned her husband and son when Lucius was nine to travel the world with an actor. His cold and hard father cared little for his wife, but didn't like the scandal. He proceeded to live for his mistress and ended up dying in a duel over her when his son was twelve.

Lucius decides to spend time at Briersly, an estate he purchased from Colonel Wintergreen years earlier. This is the one place he can relax. While hunting birds, he starts to shoot a flying goose and hears a woman shriek "NO!" causing him to only wing the bird. He soon discovers that the bird and the woman are both surprises. The bird is actually a mechanical one that Althea had given to Effie for her birthday that day and the two of them had been test flying it. The woman and child delight him causing him to uncharacteristically ask them to his estate for tea and cakes to make up for damaging Effie's birthday present.

Althea and her mechanical, analytical mind fascinates Lucius. Althea is surprised that she is attracted to Lucius. He realizes that she is hiding from something and pushes her to trust him. He decides that he wants her for his wife, but she is afraid that her scandalous image would injure him in society and offers to instead, be his mistress. This is unacceptable to him, but he cannot convince her until someone tries to kidnap Effie. He is able to persuade her that by marrying him, he can protect them both.

I particularly liked Althea. She is a scientist in many ways, looking at life's problem through that background. She is independent and strong because after her mother died when she was eight, she had to become the family caretaker. She took care of the family household in India where her father was stationed and blossomed under the less restrictive ways she found there. Lucius, however, is no slouch. He has increased the family fortune and done so by treating workers on his lands and in his factories fairly, worked for political reform, and served his country as a spy for part of the war. Between the two of them, sparks fly.

The mystery part of the story pulled my rating down a heart. Althea's villain ends up tangled with villains from Lucius' spy past. The coincidence was just too great and the connections did not make a lot of sense. The story could have been just as suspenseful with only one of the villains.

Despite my concerns, it was worth reading just for the connection between Althea and Lucius. I found Althea's attempts to explain the attraction between the two of them in scientific terms charming. The "natural law of gravitational forces between two disparate bodies" will never mean the same thing to me again.

--B. Kathy Leitle

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