The Inconvenient Duchess

An Unladylike Offer
by Christine Merrill
(Harl. Historical, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29462-X
An Unladylike Offer is made by Esme Canville, a young miss who has suffered physical and psychological abuse from her father ever since her mother left him for another man. Now Esme is of age, and her father is selling her to the highest bidder, a man as old as her father and one who is smarmy, at best. Having been discovered trying to run away, she has now just one last hope. Captain St. John Radwell, brother to a duke, lives across the road. Esme has convinced herself it will be better to be Radwell’s mistress than the elderly man’s bride. So she heads to his rooms late one night and offers her services.

St. John would have been happy to accept her offer months ago, but now he is trying to reform. He is estranged from his brother due to a bit of brouhaha over trying to seduce his sister-in-law, the duke’s wife. He has left the army, being sick of the war and the killing. He is currently awaiting word from the King, offering him a title and estate if he keeps his nose clean. Now here is this lovely young woman on his doorstep, swearing she cannot go home.

So St. John packs her up and takes her to his brother and wife. He hopes to reconcile and help Esme all the same. Marcus and Miranda reluctantly agree, mainly because Miranda knows that the falling out was a misunderstanding and wants to reunite the brothers. Miranda also has decided to play matchmaker. She tells St. John she wants him to stay and act the cad so Esme will see the sense in picking some other man for her husband. Yet in her mind, she wants to throw the two together, hoping sparks will ignite. They tell Esme’s father that she has taken ill and needs to recuperate at their country estate, where they plan to hold some soirees and introduce men to Esme.

This is a fun book in that Esme and St. John are well matched and they share some great scenes. There is some great bantering and the scenes when they try to seduce and yet put each other off are a delight. Early on, Esme sees the plan Miranda is perpetrating and does all she can to be successful. St. John, meanwhile, is attracted, yet really trying to do the right thing. He is convinced that his lack of money and title will keep him from being accepted by Esme’s father and he isn’t really interested in marriage…or is he?

What keeps this from a higher rating is that the basic tale does not have enough meat in it for a full-length novel. This means that the in-between status of their relationship gets dragged out way too long. While one scene of seduction in the library was fine, it seemed a bit extreme when it happened every night for a week. And then it feels as if the resolution just pops out of the blue and the story ends rather quickly. Esme protested a bit too much and St. John flip-flopped a bit too easily when they had had opposite roles for the entire story.

If you’d enjoy a Regency-set romance that has a bit of the absurd and a very well-written series of interludes, then give this one a try. An Unladylike Offer is worth the time, despite the minor flaws.

--Shirley Lyons

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