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The first thought that came to mind as I was reading through the early chapters of Elizabeth Michels's debut novel, Must Love Dukes, is that she mixed up the sequence of the love story. And this is a good thing. Her hero and heroine end up sleeping together first and then spend the rest of the novel figuring out what kind of relationship they have. It's a refreshing change from the conventional love story. The novelty of the beginning piqued my interests and made me excited for how the author would lay out the rest of her story.
In between the beginning and the end, we read about how Devon wrestles with his attraction to Lily and his sense of betrayal because he doesn't know if he can forgive or trust her when she stole his pocket watch after their night together and then also discovering that she lied about her name, and her life. A battle of wills ensues as Devon seeks Lily's help in exacting his revenge against his late father's detractors. It's a test for both Lillian and the readers as Devon instructs her to do some seemingly mundane tasks for him. Part of me wondered about Devon's intentions and shared Lily's debate on whether she should trust him and go through with the task. It would have been so easy to just refuse him --
"When you dance the next waltz with Hingsworth, you will place this in his pocket without his notice." He pulled a handkerchief free, holding it between his fingers in front of her.
"I do not wish to be near that man, much less have my fingers in his pockets."
"As much as it warms my heart to know that you only enjoy delving into my pockets, this is what you must do to keep my silence. It's for your own reputation, Lily. I can just as easily tell the world what happened between us."
"What is the significance of this handkerchief?"
"It is the metaphorical handkerchief waved at the beginning of a great race. Its whiteness is a symbol of your unblemished past and purity. It's a square of linen, which represents the paths of our lives woven together in this moment." A smile broke across his face.
"You know that's not what I meant. What will this do? What will happen? Does this handkerchief belong to Hingsworth?"
"No, as it happens, it is an old one of mine. But that's no consequence. Do as I say and all will go to plan."
"You will see." He grinned.
- loc 1411 to loc 1420
But, I guess it is a testament of Lily's love for Devon. Even when she didn't realise it (yet), something within her innately trusted Devon and recognised that this is a man who cannot possibly do anything wrong. So, she accomplishes her tasks and then see the results of her action/contribution to Devon's schemes. This led me to reflect on a second point: was Devon in sole control of their relationship? It seemed like it because he would issue a dare and Lily would follow. In fact, the blurb highlights the role of "dares" in Devon and Lily's courtship.
What is a "dare"? I think this word has taken on a bit of a negative connotation in our times (to mean something foolish or reckless) but, it actually means to have the courage to do something. This is exactly what Lily needed to do in her life: her elder brothers are dictating what she should be doing for her own sake and for the sake of their family -- but it is not what Lily wants to do. Her protests fall to deaf ears as her brothers, especially Solomon Phillips, continues to pull her hither-and-to like a puppet for their own pleasure and advancement. Even if it was not Devon's primary intention, he actually gave Lily the tools to speak her own truth when he dared Lily to do those tasks for him.
Their courtship does not happen in the traditional sense, but it is to be expected from a couple who did not meet in the usual way. Still, I kept waiting for the same spark of attraction and awareness that blazed so brightly in the early chapters to show up in the latter chapters -- but, sadly, it does not and I thought this was a lost opportunity for the author -- because the conversation between Lily and Devon at the Stag and Doe tavern over sangarees was amazing and the chemistry between the two was so very obvious. Throughout the story, they never discuss or revisit what happened to them a year ago: there is no confrontation, no explanation -- and, I felt a bit frustrated when they ignore the building blocks that they had laid out a year ago and built a new relationship on a different foundation.
Reading this story made me realise how impatient I am as a reader -- when an action happens, I want the explanation for that action to happen now (or, at least, soon); when the hero or heroine says something, I want the explanation for it now (or, at least, soon) -- this is not the case for this story. This is a story that requires a great deal of trust and patience from the readers. In fact, the reason behind Lily's theft of Devon's pocket watch (which happens in the first three chapters) is not explained until the very end of the story.
Elizabeth Michels poses a lot of questions at the start of the story (Why did Lily follow Devon into the bar? Why did she steal the pocket watch? Why didn't Devon say who he was? etc.) and, to her credit, she does a good job of building up suspense before revealing all in the end. My one small, small problem with it, however, is that I honestly thought the reason wasn't substantial enough to justify the loss of Lily's virginity to Devon. It was too big a sacrifice and I don't know if this makes the heroine incredibly noble or incredibly unwise.
Devon's motivations were much easier to understand. His father died with the world thinking he was mad. Devon has inherited the dukedom and, sadly, the same reputation and is known in society as "The Mad Duke" -- is Devon really mad? No. I actually loved how intelligent he was and how differently he saw the world.
"You know you tilt your chin to the right when you're angry?"
"Shhhh. We are enjoying the view in silence."
"Right." A moment passed and all the while she could feel his gaze on her. "The Himalayan goral gets a similar peevish look when you near its young."
- loc 1778
Is he loveable? As the title asks/requires us to? I have to admit that Devon has a certain charm and he does endear himself to me as a character -- especially in the end, when the situation calls on Devon to take on a dare of his own: To love Lily and to show the world just how much he does.
Must Love Dukes is the first book in Elizabeth Michels's Tricks of the Ton series and her debut historical romance novel. It will be released on February 4, 2014. To find out more about Elizabeth Michels, click below:
Disclosure: I received this ARC via Netgalley. Thank you to Elizabeth Michels and Sourcebooks Casablanca for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.