|Eloisa James is a hit-or-miss author for me, but A Duke of her Own is definitely a hit. This story of a dissipated duke and his six illegitimate children is going to capture a lot of hearts.
Leopold Dautry, the Duke of Villiers, is a thirty-five-year-old rakehell who has finally grown up and is ready to address his paternal responsibilities – all six of them. Leopold has six children, which he had placed in the care of his solicitor as they were born. Unfortunately for the children, their money was taken and they were farmed out into impoverished circumstances all over England. As the story opens, Leopold has located four of them, but he is still looking for his five-year-old twin daughters, who are somewhere in an orphanage. The duke plans to find the girls, and also find a wife who will be a good mother. She will need to be someone who can ignore their illegitimacy and launch them into Society. Only a duke’s daughter will have that kind of self-assurance and societal clout.
Lady Eleanor, daughter of the Duke of Montague, has vowed to marry – but only to a duke. This is self-preservation on her part. Eleanor loved Gideon, the Duke of Astley, but he ended their romance several years earlier when his father died and it was discovered that Gideon had been betrothed as a child to another woman. Eleanor’s declaration is partly to let Gideon know she still loves only him, and partly to ward off suitors, as she’s not interested in marrying anyone else.
With the help of her slightly acerbic sister, Anne, Eleanor meets Leopold at a benefit. Not caring if she impresses him or not, Eleanor does just that. Leopold is quite taken with her forthrightness, not to mention that she doesn’t blink at the news of his children. They even discuss marriage in a general way. But there is another eligible duke’s daughter: Lady Lisette, who lives near an orphanage that might hold Leopold’s daughters. Lisette is a friend of Eleanor’s, and Eleanor decides to visit her and get to know Leopold better, as he indicates he will spend some time at Lisette’s family estate and would be pleased if Eleanor would join them.
Lisette is a beautiful creature, and though her eccentric behavior is outside the norm, she is kind and accepting toward the idea of six bastard children. She might make a perfect wife, one who will teach them not to care what society thinks. But Eleanor, with her intelligence and sultry natural beauty, draws Leopold like a moth to a flame. So, whom will he choose?
Spoiler alert: read no further if you wish to find out for yourself. Savvy readers will have the whole thing figured out pretty quickly, and the journey is delightful. Leopold sets out to marry the perfect mother for his children, and ends up blindsided when he discovers the one thing he never expected to find: the perfect woman for him, the one who touches the deepest part of his heart and makes him feel alive in ways he never dreamed.
Eleanor is a wonderful heroine. Smart, witty, and utterly uninterested in kowtowing to anyone, even to please her imperious mother, she watches the mayhem unfolding in front of her and is as surprised as anyone when Leopold chases all thoughts of Gideon right out of her mind. What begins as lust quickly deepens, as Eleanor finds she’s thoroughly attracted to Leopold’s quick mind and endearing desire to make up for his past sins.
Leopold does a fine turn as a haughty duke who is nonplussed when he meets the one woman who is completely unimpressed by his fortune or manner. Readers will enjoy watching as Leopold unthaws and allows Eleanor to discover the man underneath. His rather painful upbringing might explain why he is so taken with Lisette, but even so, the reader may well wonder why Leopold can’t seem to see what is in front of everyone’s eyes. Even his thirteen-year-old son, Tobias, has a clearer view of Lisette than his father. (Tobias, by the way, would make in excellent hero in his own right.)
The supporting cast is excellent. Anne, the sister, provides much of the humor in the story, and even Eleanor’s mother displays flashes of warmth and humor of her own under the exterior of a privileged duchess. I quite liked her. Characters from some of the other “Desperate Duchesses” books make brief appearances, just enough to make their presence known without being intrusive. The children are precocious without being precious, and even Eleanor’s pet puppy is given a personality and a function in the story. He’s not just dragged around to contribute to a Cute Factor..
I was puzzled as to why the element of chess wasn’t employed. Leopold is described as being, in his own words, the “third-best player in England” and Eleanor is supposedly a brilliant player in her own right. Yet, they never play each other; in fact, chess barely is mentioned in the story. If ever a character could use a humbling, or at least a good meeting of the minds, it’s Leopold. It felt like a wasted opportunity.
A Duke of Her Own is one of the most enjoyable historical romances I’ve read all year. Eloisa James saves the best for last in her “Desperate Duchesses” series, and even if you haven’t read the others in the series, this one comes strongly recommended.