Fever Dreams

The Heartbreaker

Lord of Seduction

Master of Temptation

The Seduction

Wicked Fantasy

To Desire a Wicked Duke
by Nicole Jordan
(Ballantine, $7.99, R) ISBN 978-0-345-51009-9
To Desire a Wicked Duke is apparently the sixth and final installment in Ms. Jordanís ďCourtship WarsĒ series, and it felt like she couldnít wait to get the whole thing over with. An annoying heroine and an unconvincing romance didnít make for a fun reading experience. Add to it the backstory of every former lead character from the previous books (one final sales pitch, I suppose) and this was a book I was glad to finish.

Tess Blanchardís fiancť died two years ago at the Battle of Waterloo, and she has since devoted herself to endless charity work. These charities are mentioned approximately six hundred times throughout the course of the story, in case the reader misses the point. Tess is now twenty-three and wondering what sheís missing in the passion department. One evening, she impulsively allows a man to kiss her, and she feels nothing. Her late fianceís cousin, Ian Sutherland, the Duke of Rotham, interrupts them and after shooing the man away, proceeds to kiss Tess himself. Tess definitely feels something this time. They get a bit carried away and are discovered by Tessís godmother, who is notoriously high in the instep. Ian agrees to marry Tess in order to save her reputation, and Tess reluctantly agrees.

Tess has fascinated Ian for years, so heís not exactly unhappy with the arrangement. Tess, however, longs for a love match and decides to live apart from Ian as much as possible, since heís autocratic and domineering and all those duke-ish sorts of things. First, she must get past the obligatory wedding night, and help arrives in the form of Fanny, a former courtesan who is an old friend of Tessís circle. Since all of Tessís friends are happily married to virile husbands, one has to wonder why any of them couldnít counsel Tess instead, but then there would be no plot after the second chapter.

Fanny has published one gothic novel and wants to write a second. Sheís in love with her old friend Basil, who wonít propose because he canít support her well enough, so Tess asks Ian to hire Basil in some capacity. Ian, wanting to please his new wife, agrees. He also agrees not to consummate the marriage until she asks for it, which Tess believes she will never do.

The action shifts to one of Ianís estates in Cornwall, where Fanny hopes to play matchmaker for Ian and Tess, Tess hopes to play matchmaker for Fanny and Basil, and Ian just wants to bed his wife. Throw in smugglers, a ghost, and a Big Secret that comes to light, and what you have is a standard-issue romance.

I could have lived with that, were it not for Tess herself. We hear about the charity work ad nauseum, but mostly Tess comes across as spoiled and self-absorbed. Other than her looks, I couldnít figure out what Ian saw in her. Telling me sheís beautiful, kind, and generous doesnít work when sheís acting like a shrew to Ian and trying to justify her behavior. Ian is patient and protective, preferring to seduce her rather than force her, and the sex heats up quickly. Jordan can write a hot love scene with the best of them, but Tess canít let go of her late fianceís memory, and this clouds the developing relationship.

There are plenty of other clouds already. Ian has a number of secrets, and despite his rakehell reputation is actually quite a decent guy, but heís unimpressive in that he doesnít seem to have ever stopped and taken a good look at his life. He has no idea why he acts the way he does, and it takes him most of the book to figure it out. Maybe these two do belong together.

Fanny apparently was used as a catalyst in every other book in this series, so her romance with Basil must have been obligatory to wrap things up. The characters from the past five books troop in and out, waving hello and mostly reminding us that their stories were Very Passionate and we might want to check them out. I wasnít intrigued.

To Desire a Wicked Duke didnít strike me as Nicole Jordanís best. She has a new trilogy starting up, and maybe a fresh start will rejuvenate her talents. If youíre looking for a steamy read, this one might do. Just donít scrutinize the characters too closely.

--Cathy Sova

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