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It's an often-used trope in historical romance: they meet, fall in love, get married, and are about to start a family -- the perfect ending to this story would be the birth of the child, but, in Lily Dalton's debut novel, Never Desire a Duke, the perfect ending never happens. Sophia gets upset when she discovers love letters from Claxton's former mistress, and suffers a miscarriage when she tries to leave him. Grief, anger, guilt -- the result of this one moment destroys the fairy-tale marriage between our hero and heroine. Claxton decides to take the diplomatic post abroad, believing that what Sophia needs the most is time, space and privacy. It is seven months later and Claxton is back from his assignment abroad. While he knows that Sophia could never forgive him, he still believes that they can rescue their marriage. Imagine his surprise when Sophia asks him for a separation.
He had no idea how to take her pain away or how to return their world to centre. At the same time, he felt so angry at her. He'd harboured such hope. He could not help but feel betrayed.
- Chapter 4
This is a story about second chances, about a couple who has drifted apart and must now try to find their way back to each other -- what is surprising about Dalton's version of this story is the heroine. Sophia isn't the sentimental or emotional party in this story -- it is Claxton. I thought this was a refreshing (and welcome) change. It was Claxton who was vulnerable and wore his heart on his sleeve and Sophia was careful and guarded her heart (and body) against Claxton. Our hero is in a difficult position: how can he convince his wife to give him a second chance? How can he explain when she has closed herself off to him? Sophia is ready to wage war with him, but all Claxton wants to do is wage peace. War and peace: where is the middle ground for this young couple?
The answer? In a village full of lovable characters, at Claxton's childhood home during a snowstorm. (And it also happens to be almost Christmas.)
Dalton's debut has all the elements that I love about stories about reconciliation, but I had a small problem with the emotional tone: the beginning is very dramatic and I was really expecting a story with a lot of angst, tears, and angry confrontation -- but, the story shifts and becomes unexpectedly lighthearted. It happens quite early in the story, so I was able to adjust to it -- but, then, there's Chapter 6 and a shooting.
A crack shattered the air. Atop her, his every muscle went taut.
"Someone?" Sophia strained to see if a tree branch had given way under the weight of the frost, but --
"Stay down," he growled, splaying his hand over her forehead and curling his body over hers. Crack. A split second later, a shower of snow covered them both.
His chest vibrated against hers as he uttered, "We're going to have to run for the wall over there."
The sudden realisation came over her. A tree hadn't made the cracking noise, but a gun. Someone was shooting at them.
"Who is trying to kill us?
"I don't know."
- Chapter 6
(This scene takes a somewhat comic turn with the appearance of Lady Meltenbourne and her angry husband). Lady Meltenbourne also begins this story as a bit vicious: singling out Sophia and prodding her about Claxton's absence (Chapter 1), but, her character changes after Chapter 6. For me, these sudden shifts affected the flow and momentum of the story and I had to keep flipping back to see if I had missed anything.
The story finally finds some consistency after this point, and it's wonderful to read about Camellia House and the Kettles, the couple who were in the employ of Claxton's mother and now of Claxton. Dalton captures the warmth and quaintness of the small village setting and I really enjoyed the lookabout game that Sophia and Claxton embark on. Though we never meet her, Claxton's late mother sounded like a really wonderful person and a bit of a tragic character, considering what she had to endure from her husband. The game is, in a sense, a time-travel activity for Claxton, who is reminded of the goodness and love of his mother and of their small community. The game is also revelatory for Sophia who can now understand what motivates/drives her husband.
No heart is hard enough or cold enough to withstand the onslaught of such warmth, merriment and good cheer, and Sophia slowly (but still reluctantly) starts opening up to Claxton. Her main concern is Claxton's former amours and her worry that Claxton would continue to engage in extramarital affairs. While Claxton has repeatedly assured Sophia of his fidelity to her, I understand why Sophia is worried. It's clear that her image of Claxton has been shattered and she feels betrayed by him -- She hates the whispers around her when they are in society. She hates knowing that her husband has shared himself with other women. Her first instinct is self-preservation, and this is understandable -- but I also like that she hadn't completely closed the door on their story.
"The poor duchess," whispered one of the women, but loudly and plain enough for Sophia to hear. "So young and pretty, forced to abide 'is lordship's strumpet sitting right there."
Someone shushed her sharply.
Sophia's hand tightened on the cup. The poor duchess. That would be her. ...
- Chapter 7
The best part about Dalton's story is the reflection on marriage and relationships -- Sophia and Claxton had a marriage, a good and happy one, but they didn't have a good relationship, which is why things fell apart the way it did. Now, snowbound and away from their usual routines, Sophia is getting to see a side of the duke that she has never seen before, and vice versa -- there are real and honest conversations that happen between the two of them. Being in Claxton's childhood home also served to contrast the marriage between the former duke and his wife (Claxton's parents) and the current duke and his wife. Healing, forgiveness, understanding -- it's magical how the human heart is capable of such grandness.
Never Desire a Duke is the first book in Lily Dalton's One Scandalous Season series and her debut novel. To find out more about Lily Dalton and her books, click below: