Bittersweet

 
The Duke’s Double by Anita Mills
(Signet, $3.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-19954-5
*****
When I agreed to review Anita Mills’ rewrite of her classic Regency romance, I thought I could do a really close comparison of the two versions. After all, The Duke’s Double has been sitting on my keeper shelf for years (hence the above rating) and I have read it more than once. However, a desperate search through my many keepers failed to turn up my copy and I remembered that the book sits in my other keeper pile, 350 miles away. So I will have to depend on my lamentable memory to judge the difference between the two.

Let me begin by saying that the story and the characters are exactly the same. Six years before this tale begins, Adrian Delancourt had broken Joanna Sherwood’s heart and ruined her life. Adrian, Gareth Sherwood and Joanna Milford had been childhood friends, growing up together, playing at pirates and soldiers and pledging eternal fidelity. Of course, time and age separated them, but, as they had pledged, both Adrian and Gary appeared at Joanna’s come-out ball. Both danced with her and both proposed marriage.

But Adrian asked first and Joanna had always been fascinated by his dark good looks, his tempestuous personality and his air of command. And thus the daughter of an impecunious baron married the Duke of Roxbury’s heir. Within four months she was a duchess and within a year, she stood before the House of Lords, accused of adultery with her husband’s best friend, Gareth Sherwood, Earl of Carew.

Accused of this heinous crime by her mother-in-law, Joanna had stood mute as her beloved husband accepted his mother’s vile calumnies. She fled, first to her father but, when he closed his door to her, she had nowhere to go but to her best friend Gareth. After the trial and the divorce, Gary had married her and they fled, first to Italy and then to Capri. Now, Gary is dead, drowned in a boating accident, and Joanna’s loving mother-in-law wants her to return to England so that her two sons can grow up English.

Joanna resists; she knows that as a divorced woman she will be ostracized. But there is another problem. Her elder son, Justin looks exactly like his father and his father was not Gary. Assured that Adrian never visits the Armitage, the estate next to the Carew holdings, Joanna reluctantly agrees to go home.

Of course, as fate would have it, Adrian has come to the Armitage at the insistence of his mother who has found him the perfect second wife. Almeria Bennington has looks, money and breeding. Adrian’s mother has invited the Benningtons to visit, determined to bring her son up to scratch by fair means or foul.

Fate would also have it that Adrian comes across Joanna visiting the haunts of their youth with her son. One look at Joanna causes Adrian to realize that he has never gotten over her, despite her supposed betrayal. One look at Justin makes Adrian understand that he lost more than a wife six years earlier. He also lost a son.

How Adrian and Joanna regain the love that they lost is the essence of The Duke’s Double. When a hero has mistreated a heroine as badly as Adrian mistreated Joanna, most readers insist that he grovel pretty convincingly to get her back. I think the “grovel quotient” in The Duke’s Double is quite acceptable. But Mills also shows why Adrian acted as he did and causes Joanna to recognize that her pride in refusing to defend herself played at least a part in the tragedy.

The cast of secondary characters is rich and well drawn. I don’t know that I have ever come across as unpleasant a mother-in-law as Helen, Dowager Duchess of Roxbury. But Mills does not create a caricature, but rather a woman whose motives are comprehensible if totally selfish. Equally well drawn is the good mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Carew. We understand why she is so accepting of Joanna and her grandson, despite his irregular birth.

Mills also provides a touching portrayal of young Justin who is just old enough to realize how much he lost when his loving father died. If young Robin at three barely remembers his father, Justin is nearly inconsolable.

Perhaps the most poignant “character” in the story is Gareth Sherwood. This admirable young man who tried to force his friend to see how wrong he was and then married Joanna, loved her son as his own, and helped her to heal and grow is a constant presence. Watching Adrian remember his friend and slowly come to question his supposed betrayal is one of the strongest parts of the book.

Now, what about the differences between the two versions? Well, clearly the longer format allows more character development and the writing reflects Mills’ increased skill. I think that the author deals more correctly with the legal issues surrounding Justin’s birth. I also think that the sweet secondary romance between Joanna’s suitor, the dashing Lord Barrasford and her governess, is an addition and a nice touch. But I’m not sure.

I do know that now I will have two versions of The Duke’s Double on my keeper shelf, one for Pittsburgh and one for the shore. Thus, I will always have a copy of Adrian’s and Joanna’s love story on hand when I am in the mood for an intensely emotional and immensely satisfying romance.

--Jean Mason


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