You know how sometimes you pick up a book because it looks like fun, and then it turns out to be clever and funny and tender and tropey and still somehow unique, and you read it all in one sitting and hop straight onto the Kobo site after midnight to order the previous book in the series?
Yeah, that was A Most Unusual Duke for me.
This story worked so, so well for me. It’s a nice, traditional sort of historical, where the hero and heroine are essentially forced into marriage by the Prince Regent, and have to learn how to live together, and heal from their respective traumatic pasts while restoring the decrepit manor house that belongs to the hero, and there is only one bed, and also, the butler is a were-turtle. Plus, the hero is a were-bear, and the clan (or ‘sleuth’ as it is called here) has been in disarray since the death of his father.
And all of these items are treated in exactly the same, matter of fact way, and I completely loved it. You know, the house is falling down around your ears, and your husband is grumpy and rude, and the in-laws have come to stay and you don’t have anywhere to put them, and also werewolves are so bloody dramatic, will they ever get over themselves? I also loved that this was a story that could easily have been angsty and dark, but in fact was deliciously cosy, tropey, and often very funny. For a book that really has quite a lot of plot, it was fairly slow-moving and gentle, and there was a sly humour to the narrative voice at times that I particularly enjoyed.
In another breathless moment she was out of danger, those two large hands that saved her from the Tread of Danger having now rescued her from the Mirror of Certain Death.
The story starts with a prologue, in which Osborn, a bear-shifter and future alpha, sees his grieving father killed by another bear shifter who wants to take control of the sleuth. The interloper wins the duel, but fails to hold the sleuth together and they scatter. Six-year old Osborn flees with the rest, and rather than swearing revenge, he swears never to marry or take on alpha status, because his father, he believes, was weakened by the death of his mother and thus Felled By Love, leading to the destruction of the sleuth. Osborn never wants to be responsible for the destruction of a sleuth, thus he must avoid alpha-hood, and love, forever.
This is, of course, the logic of a six year old, or of a traditional Regency hero, so I was happily on board with it.
Meanwhile, Beatrice is fully human, and is the survivor of an abusive marriage to a werewolf. She has, rather more rationally, decided to eschew both marriage and shifters in future, and has managed thus far to do so, largely by blackmailing the Prince Regent with her knowledge of the Were, who are found at the highest echelons of society, mind you, but are nonetheless a Secret. I was not entirely convinced of the likelihood of this, but was enjoying myself too much to care. (Also, the Prince Regent is a were-bear, which delighted me.) Beatrice learned, during her marriage, to be an ice queen – people refer to her as ‘Lady Frost’ – and has also mastered the art of the Defiant Curtsey, which the Prince Regent quite hilariously cannot handle at all. I cannot tell you how much I loved Beatrice.
Anyway, the Prince Regent summons Osborn and Beatrice and tells Beatrice that the Were community is onto her and that her only choices are death or marriage to Osborn. Beatrice is not interested in dying, and Osborn can’t bring himself to be responsible for her death, so the marriage is on. But don’t worry, it’s going to be a marriage in name only – they won’t have sex and they definitely won’t fall in love.
OH OF COURSE THEY WON’T.
And then they go to Osborn’s falling-down manor, and meet the servants – who are all Were – and there are renovations and only one bed and his family shows up and there are plot moppets and Mysterious Happenings and did I mention that this book is so, so, tropey? It is really SO SO SO tropey. I ate it up with a spoon.
Seriously, I haven’t had this much sheer fun reading something in a very long time.
The relationship between Beatrice and Osborn was pretty delightful. I’m a sucker for marriage of convenience romances where two people have to learn how to deal with each other, and this one was extra fun because neither of them wanted to be there, and both of them are prickly, sarcastic types, but they are also both adult enough not to blame each other for it. And while they are not prone to sweet words, or indeed, direct communication they show care for each other in their own unique way.
Osborn balked on the threshold of the largest receiving room, and when she did not exhort him to follow or inquire as to why he hesitated, he took a breath and ventured forward. It cost him, and Beatrice honoured his fortitude by being as brisk and snappish as she could manage. He, in turn, was obstreperous and sarcastic. She tested the bell pull, and it came straight down from the ceiling with the requisite cloud of dust. She stumbled back into his chest; he turned her around and stroked the dust off her face, which produced an odd stirring beneath her petticoats, to a disturbing enough degree she dropped the velvet rope and left the room.
Both Beatrice and Osborn are people with terrible things in their pasts, and both of them have learned to be fiercely self-protective in response. I liked the way they gave each other space, and didn’t demand explanations, but instead helped each other preserve their privacy and dignity until they were ready to share. Even in bed, while Osborn is aware of what Beatrice’s first marriage must have been like, and is accordingly very gentle and careful with her. He doesn’t make any comment about her reactions, beyond ensuring that she is still consenting, nor does he press her for the additional intimacy of conversation or explanation. When they finally do let their guards down enough to talk directly to each other about their respective pasts, it is almost a greater intimacy than the sex.
I love that Osborn may be a big, gruff, rude alpha, but he is also innately gentle. While he gives as good as he gets in arguing with Beatrice, he is physically very careful with her, right from the start. And when his sister in law gets annoyed with him, he voluntarily bends down so that she can box his ears, even when he thinks he is in the right – it’s just this very sweet non-verbal expression of affection and respect. He’s really rather adorable.
I also love that Beatrice takes one look at the falling-down manor and goes ‘Aha, a project!’, and is then just unstoppable, organising everyone in sight. I also enjoyed her relationship with her new nieces and nephews, who she begins to teach proper manners – in her own rather unique style:
The children rushed to stand before him and treated their uncle to a sardonic flurry of curtsying and one exceedingly condescending bow.
I really, really want to learn the art of defiant curtseying.
I also liked that Beatrice’s prickliness and Lady Frost persona are not negative personality traits that need to be unlearned, but rather signs of her strength, and that her new family loves her and accepts that this is just part of who she is.
There are so many little things to love in this book, as well. Osborn’s family are a delight, especially Charlotte, his sister-in-law, who has never met a double entendre she didn’t like. I also really liked the Prince Regent being a shifter. It makes so much sense of his apparent fecklessness and indolence if in fact he was spending half his time trying to manage the affairs of a secret Were community. There were lots of little Easter eggs for lovers of Shakespeare and etymology, too, which made me happy, and I liked the way the story came together like a jigsaw puzzle in the end. And I love that after the main plot is wound up, we get quite a bit of time to enjoy the denouement. It made reading this story a very relaxing experience.
A Most Unusual Duke was utterly unlike anything I was expecting. I was prepared for drama (let’s face it, werewolves *are* usually dramatic) and angst and fated mates and sexytimes, and I got some of those things, but mostly I got a cosy, tender, funny, domestic sort of story about two people figuring out how to live together and look after each other and the people around them. I loved that the story could be serious and angsty and sweet one moment, and laugh at itself in the next moment. And I adored Beatrice and Osborn and the way they treated each other and the people around them. I loved this book, and I’m heading straight off to read the first book in the series as soon as I finish writing this review.