A Bargain With Fate

The Dukeís Mistress
by Ann ElizabethCree
(Harlequin Hist., $5.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29305-4
English author Elizabeth Ann Cree has undertaken a daring premise - at least in terms of the current conventions of romance writing in America. She has created a scenario where the hero compels the heroine to become his mistress. The hero, Justin, Duke of Westmore, has very good reason to want revenge against Lady Isabelle Milborne. She had, after all, played a central role in the events that had forced him to flee England three years earlier. While he was away, his beloved mother and father had died. Certainly, the woman who had ruthlessly stolen his heart and then admitted her complicity in her husbandís foul plans should not escape unscathed.

Still, the author has created a real challenge for herself. Readers donít usually like heroes who force women into their beds, especially when they know that Isabelle was as much a victim of her vile husbandís machinations as the duke. Lucien had thrown Isabelle and Justin together and then, actually wagered his wife in a card game. When Justin won and insisted on taking Isabelle away, Lucien had followed and forced a duel, all to revenge the death of his father, which he blamed on Justinís father. But Lucienís plans had gone awry. He, not Justin, was wounded and though he lingered for several months, he ultimately died from infection. But Lucien had had the satisfaction of knowing that the duke had been forced to send his son away from England.

Now, Justin has returned, a war hero, no less. Isabelle is dismayed; she has come to London in the company of her mother-in-law and Lucienís half-sister, Chloe, for the latterís come out. The duke begins to pay attention to Chloe and her guardian encourages the connection. Isabelle knows that Justin is motivated by revenge and fears that her beloved sister-in-law will be forced into an unhappy match. When Justin presents his ultimatum - he will leave Chloe alone if Isabelle becomes his mistress - she agrees. She feels more than a little guilt about the events that led to Justinís exile.

My problems with The Dukeís Mistress do not arise from the premise but rather from the characterizations and the contrived nature of the plot. It is not the presence of a ďbig misunderstanding;Ē frankly, had Isabelle at the outset tried to convince Justin that she had had no part in Lucienís plot, he would have been unlikely to believe her. But Isabelle is simply too much of a doormat for my taste. Her ready agreement to Justinís demands makes her seem a victim rather than a heroine one can admire. (Please note that I do not expect my Regency heroines to act and think like contemporary women; I simply want them to exhibit a modicum of backbone.)

Justinís character is equally problematic. He simply comes across as too nice to have embarked on the revenge plot to begin with. Of course, the genre conventions are at work here. While he can introduce Isabelle to the possibilities of sexual pleasure, he cannot force her to have sex. So there must be a fairly rapid alteration in his feelings about her and hers about him. The changes are not completely convincing.

Finally, the story has too many contrivances and coincidences to be completely satisfactory. Once Justin and Isabelle have come together, perhaps halfway through the book, there is really nothing to prevent a happily ever after. Hence, Cree must introduce other and less than persuasive stumbling blocks.

Ultimately, however, the plot is not the main problem with The Dukeís Mistress. It is rather the heroine. From first to last, Isabelleís behavior shows a lack of good sense. She is a less than satisfactory heroine; thus this is a less than satisfactory romance.

--Jean Mason

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