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This is an entry I wrote well over a year ago but never posted, about Caroline Linden's regency romance The Way to A Duke's Heart. It is the final novel in a trilogy, The Truth About the Duke, in which the three sons of the very recently deceased Francis de Lacey, Duke of Durham, try and prove their legitimacy while at the same time finding unexpected true love.

In this third book, the hero is Charles de Lacey, the probable new duke and the least promising hero; the drinker and womaniser to his younger brothers Edward the coolheaded and effective businessman and Gerard the hotheaded but effective soldier.

But the real puzzle is what the hell was up with their father?!

The story from the point of view of Francis de Lacey goes something like this. As young man with some inherited wealth, the grandson of the estranged brother of the Duke of Durham, he goes to London in search of fun and discovers it in the form of one Dorothy Cope, a young actress. Annoyed at her open skepticism as regards his interest in her, he bullies her into marrying him. Ill-suited, they soon part ways, encountering each other a year later on distant friendly terms and then never again. Fault the first: terrible boyfriend.

In his early middle-age, his father's cousins — the two sons of the elderly Duke of Durham — each die without an heir; the second only some months before the duke's own death. Francis is thus very unexpectedly a duke. He and his much younger sister Margaret move to London at the beginning of the Season to establish his household. He (for reasons unknown to his sister until about forty years later) swears off marriage but settles the largest dowry of the Season on her, and she thus goes on the marriage market at age thirty, with unfashionable manners and as a figure of both desire to fortune hunters and fun to more or less everyone else. This brilliant decision on the part of Francis to throw his sister to the wolves of London results in the novella I Love the Earl, in which her recently-acquired and entirely understandable open hostility to men who wish to marry her fascinates the impoverished Earl of Dowling, they quickly fall in love, and Francis yanks her dowry out from under her since apparently (earlier appearances to the contrary) he doesn't want her to marry a fortune hunter. This leaves them to live in an unheated cottage in Wales farming sheep for the first year of their marriage, at which point Francis decides he believes in true love after all, relents and makes Dowling's fortune.

For reasons that are never made clear, Margaret actually forgives Francis this immense insult to her judgement and that of her husband, which means he thinks it might be a good idea to do it again to his eldest son, for which he pays a higher price.

In the meantime, he does marry again, to someone who sounds much too good for him (from the reminsnences of her adult sons), his duchess Anne. He privately tries to resolve the question of potential bigamy with regards to his undissolved marriage to Dorothy but otherwise rules over a reasonably happy household for perhaps twelve or thirteen years until Anne's death in her fourth labour, in which she and her premature daughter both die, leaving sons aged eleven, nine and five to their father's tender mercies.

Francis, now left to his own parenting devices, starts as he means to go on, playing his sons off against each other. He goads Charlie with his younger brothers's superior skills, while reserving his most powerful affection for his heir. (Charlie remembers keenly his father's boasts about his brothers, his brothers remember keenly how his father called only for Charlie as he died, and paid Charlie's ludicrous gambling and jewelry expenses.)

As a young man, Charlie falls in love with a sixteen year old girl, Maria, who Francis believes is being thrown into his son's path by fortune hunting parents. He tells Maria and her family that he will withdraw all financial support from Charlie during his life if Charlie marries Maria. But Maria is not a middle-aged well-connected and socially independent bachelor like the Earl of Dowling, she's sixteen and she and her family withdraw from the match.

Linden also starts as she means to go on here: she's pretty unsympathetic to Maria throughout even though she starts in a terrible position — aged sixteen, caught between her family's manipulation, the fear of (relative) poverty, and her genuine although not all-consuming like for Charlie — and ends in a far worse one. After refusing to elope with Charlie, she's married off within weeks (still sixteen) to the Earl of Worley, who values her only for her looks and her ability to bear him a son. She eventually uses the one ace she thinks she has up her sleeve — a later affair with Charlie which ends in her firstborn son, Worley's heir, being of uncertain parentage — to try and manipulate Worley and ends up trapped with him despising her more but refusing to cast her off, leaving her and her son at risk of Worley murdering them with Charlie only able to offer his brother Edward's possible protection, and then only if she can get herself and her son out of Worley's house to seek it. I like Charlie the best of the three brothers but only if I skip those chapters and/or imagine that weeks after all this is made plain and the novels conclude, Worley catches a terrible cold and dies, leaving Maria managing the estates on behalf of her toddler son, and becoming famed for her uncanny skill investing her dowry on behalf of herself and her four daughters, unmatched even by the unearthly head for business of Teresa, Duchess of Durham, Charlie's eventual wife. Because she needs business skill much more than than the gifted Tessa does.

Anyway, Francis. He has a self-congratulatory "you'll thank me someday" sit-down with Charlie after Maria refuses to elope with him and Charlie does not in fact, thank him someday, at least, not while he lives. He rides for London the next morning and his correspondence with his father from then on comes in the form of jewelers' bills for presents to his various mistresses. Charlie does not come to Francis's death bed, nor to his funeral, next darkening the door of the family homes for his brother Edward's wedding. He does remain close to Margaret, although it seems she never reveals what an arse Francis was to her, and in touch with his brothers although more at their expense than his.

So now Francis has managed to misread and grievously insult the Earl of Dowling's love for his sister and has estranged his heir and influenced him only in the direction of being a noted source of income for women who want to get some jewels in return for sex with (apparently) the single best-looking man in England. (For the first two novels, which concern the other two brothers, Linden is carefully only to allow Charlie to appear on screen in the company of men, or of women who are married, ideally recently and lustfully to one of his own brothers, or who are much older, and even then his status as Sex Incarnate is dwelt on in some detail.) A good deed to the women of London, perhaps, but otherwise Francis is not doing well in matters of the heart.

So does he retreat from the field? Of course not. He arranges a match for Edward which is eminently suitable to all appearances; after his death Edward — spurned by his fiancee at the first hint of financial trouble — finds that his father's alert nose for a fortune hunter failed him, very publicly, when his ex-fiancee's family sells the story of Francis's bigamy to the newspapers.

To top it all off, Francis spends the last year of his life being blackmailed over his secret first marriage, revealing nothing to his sons and discovering nothing of either the blackmailer or of Dorothy's fate, and dies knowing that Charlie, who isn't even well-prepared to be the Duke of Durham other than having tastes for spending the estate's money, may instead end up disinherited (as an illegitmate son of a bigamous marriage). He spends his dying hours crying in vain for Charlie to come to him and receive his confession and forgive him. All this accomplishes is hurting the two sons who made it to his deathbed, Edward and Gerard, for whom he has barely a thought. Entirely by accident the ensuing scandal throws Edward and Gerard in the way of women with whom they are well-matched and smokingly sexually compatible (that's the first two novels, One Night in London and Blame It On Bath). Only in death, Francis, are you good at marrying anyone off.

Francis retires from life with the following score: knowing jerk to his first wife, knowing jerk to his sister and her husband, acceptable to his second wife, knowing jerk to his eldest son, unknowing jerk to his second son. Thanks for playing Francis, next please!

At the end of The Way to a Duke's Heart novel there's some heavy-handed bits about Margaret and Charlie forgiving Francis everything at long last and I have no idea why. And in Linden's FAQ, it sounds like some of her readers end up quite liking Francis. I got nothing.

You've probably come out of that summary not being a big fan of Charlie either, and on paper he's terrible indeed. He's definitely not the equal of his structural twin Anthony Hamilton of Linden's Reece family novels (A Rake's Guide to Seduction), who, thrown off by his own father (in circumstances rather like the Earl of Worley's son, ie his father believes him to be a cuckoo), makes his own fortune and tries to live life by his own lights. And the thing with Lady Worley is bad: Lord Worley is the villain of that piece but Charlie is not the hero.

I suppose I like Charlie for two reasons: one is that he's basically a nice person. This isn't due to any extraordinary effort on his part: he's a wealthy heir to a duke, and I've previously mentioned that he's astonishingly good-looking. He simply hasn't had any need to learn to be terribly manipulative beyond smiling at people and buying them drinks. He gets what he wants anyway. (And what he wants is generally mutual, also. His taste in pleasures seem to be fairly simple and consensual.*)

The other is that Charlie's pretty wary of men (not without reason) and has cultivated a near-impermeable attitude of utter amused indifference in their company. Since this is nearly all one sees of him in the novels about his brothers, one gets to be surprised that he actually has a pretty readily available nice side, just only seen by women. (Tessa does not meet him in the company of his male peers, which is lucky for their match, as it would confirm all her worst fears about him and she'd run for the hills. So only the reader has this view.) He likes women as people, which always predisposes me to like male characters. Linden doesn't dwell on this trait of his in general (unlike, eg, Susanna Clarke on Jonathan Strange also having this trait, which is one of the things I like about him too). It's interesting how rare this is a noticable trait even in romantic heroes, they don't generally derive pleasure from the company of women as well as that of the heroine in particular. See also Charlie's brothers: they don't despise women, they just don't seem to have a lot of time for or interest in them in general.

So there you go, I'm a cheap date, really. Is hot, is not awful in all circumstances, likes women socially. Tessa is also fun. Situationally she's not as badly off as Maria: she narrowly avoided a very bad marriage and has lived with her viscount brother managing his business affairs and coming as close to having men's manners as her family will let her get away with (not very close). She appeals to Charlie mostly by being (beautiful and) somewhat wary of him. He is most unaccustomed to women finding his pleasant not-evil offers of sex on a plate rather frightening, but he rolls with it readily enough and doesn't push her. Hot, is not awful in all circumstances, likes women socially, willing to do about a week's work to seduce someone who doesn't get the best first impression of him. Cheap date, I told you.

Linden also manages to walk a reasonably fine line between making Charlie rather careless and making him irritiatingly stupid. He's not stupid, or aggressively lazy (crucially, as long as other men aren't judging him, then he is). He's just not sure who to be, if he can't be junior Francis de Lacey. You have to do a bunch of reading between the lines to get my reading I think, but actually Charlie and Tessa both badly need a refuge from the unforgiving world of men and for different reasons neither begins to find it until they find each other. And then it's a match that brings out the best in them both, which is nothing but luck, but still, I can get behind that.

In the end, this is my favourite of the three novels. I find Edward too uptight and Gerard too hotheaded, and I have a soft spot for men who like women. Charlie seems like a lot of fun, and I like the socially awkward headstrong Tessa a great deal. I think the whole trilogy is reasonably good and ends with the strongest novel. But none of the men are the equal of the effective and caring Anthony Hamilton of A Rake's Guide to Seduction.

* Charlie de Lacey and Anthony Hamilton both have a problem in my reading, which is that having a large number of women lovers in the Regency period isn't really a morally neutral act: their lovers are taking a big risk for them. Anthony is pretty lucky there, having fathered no children, Charlie isn't.

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