The Duke of Blackbern and the Marquess Norgrave have always had the wildest of friendships. Best friends growing up, they bask in the pleasures the rich, opulent world that London has to offer, consuming drink and women at their leisure.
But Norgrave has always been a step behind. Blackbern can best him at anything—playing cards, riding horses, and bedding women. So when the stunningly beautiful but innocent Lady Imogene Sunter strays across their path, both men agree a friendly competition for the lady’s affections cannot hurt.
But when Blackbern’s feelings turn into something deeper and Lady Imogene’s desire become clear, Norgrave will do anything to win the wager. Only one man can lay claim to Lady Imogene’s heart… and one shocking act will change them all irrevocably…
Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, June 30, 2015
Time and Setting: England, 1792
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars
Review by Maria Almaguer
Tristan Rooke, the Duke of Blackbern, and Cason Brant, the Marquess of Norgrave, are what we today call “manwhores.” Incredibly attractive, virile, promiscuous and wild, they pursue, seduce and often share women. They are best friends but it is a competitive friendship that has an undercurrent of strain to it.
Norgrave did not truly care which woman Tristan bedded as long as he ceased behaving like a bore. The realization dampened his ardor.
This very dark and rather sinister novel is set in England in the Georgian era. Prolific but new-to-me author Alexandra Hawkins draws the reader into a world of decadent privilege that often gives in to the raw, uninhibited nature of men. It reminds me of some of the sexy and forbidden men in Jane Austen’s novels: John Willoughby, George Wickham, and Henry Crawford.
The opening line says it all: “Norgrave was a madman.” With this observation, made by Tristan, Norgrave’s friend and partner in debauchery, the story is pretty much set against the seductive and dangerous rake. And Norgrave really is a rake. He is also a hedonist who unashamedly displays his sexual prowess in front of others. He loves the chase but tires quickly of his conquests and becomes lewdly excited by any resistance to those pursuits. Even Tristan, who is like a brother to him, knows his friend’s perverse predilections but, sadly, he also chooses to mostly ignore them. I think it’s because Tristan secretly fears Norgrave’s temper and the loss of his friendship. Until one terrifying night changes everything forever.
Warning: There are rape scenes in this book, but they are not overly explicit and take place mostly off stage. They are shocking and, of course, very disturbing, but Ms Hawkins writes them well. The distasteful behavior, sex, and mind games here remind me of Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, published a decade before the events in this novel. You know something bad is coming – it’s mentioned in the summary – but you just can’t stop reading because it’s so engrossing.
Lady Imogene Sunter is a duke’s daughter, whose father is very close to the King, so her family has high hopes for a good match for her. Tristan, despite his title of duke, is not one of them. But his seductive wiles work on her and she eventually succumbs to his charms and persuasion.
Norgrave has always thrust women at his friend and Tristan, being both weak and a man, almost always gives in. But lately Tristan has resented his friend’s constant interference and manipulation. When Tristan meets Imogene at a ball, he makes bold, suggestive, and very ungentlemanly remarks to her that surprised this reader (but in an unexpected and refreshing way), but Imogene is intrigued and flattered by his unwavering attentions.
But when Norgrave discovers Tristan’s newest interest, he proposes a distasteful wager that tests Tristan’s conscience and his will. For all their amorous adventures, they have never seduced maidens, instead choosing courtesans and more skilled women who know the rules and how to play their wicked games. Tristan is attracted to Imogene but feels compelled to vie with Norgrave for her virtue. He also believes he can win her and thus, keep her safe from Norgrave.
Until Tristan falls for the lady in earnest, despite his initial dishonorable intentions. At that point, Tristan almost seems to fear Norgrave’s reaction instead of standing up to him.
Imogene is a beautiful young woman whose mother rightly warns her against both Tristan and Norgrave but, when they both start to court her, her father feels it might make other worthy gentlemen notice her; and he’s right. But Imogene’s curiosity gets the better of her and she quickly chooses Tristan over his friend.
Imogene is very young and impressionable and has no experience with men at all, least of all libertines like Tristan and Norgrave. The way that Tristan speaks to her is direct and sensual, and it captivates her. She is drawn to him and swept off her feet. But Tristan, while as adventurous as Norgrave, knows the line between seduction and rape.
An exciting and tension-filled duel opens the novel, setting a tragic tone for the story and also presenting a vivid feel for the time period. There is also mention of the ironically titled Modern Chivalry by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, published in 1792, the same year this story takes place. I like the juxtaposition of honor and danger that infuses the novel.
A smart, wicked, and gripping morality tale, this is the first book in Ms Hawkins’ Masters of Seduction series, and I will definitely be reading the next one, as well as more by this author.