In the years since the publication of her début novel, Kelly Bowen has become an auto-read author and has a few books on my keeper shelf. Her writing is assured and intelligent, she comes up with intriguing, well thought-out plots, and her characters are engaging and often just that bit different to the norm for the genre. In A Duke in the Night, the first book in her new Devils of Dover series, her gift for characterisation is showcased in her heroine, Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhill School for Young Ladies. In Clara, Ms. Bowen has succeeded where many authors of historical romance have failed; she has created an independent, forward-thinking, proto-feminist heroine who nonetheless operates within the boundaries of the society to which she belongs and feels like a woman of her time. Clara is comfortable in her own skin and knows who she is; she doesn’t feel the need to prove herself all the time or show every man she comes across that she’s just as good (if not better) than he is – she knows she is and doesn’t feel the need to flounce around reminding everyone around her (and the reader) that she is Spirited and Unconventional.
For that alone, Ms. Bowen merits All The Awards.
Of course, Clara deserves a hero who not only understands her but loves her for who she is, and I’m happy to say that in August Faulkner, Duke of Holloway, she finds just that, a man who is willing to listen, evaluate and learn.
August wasn’t born to be a duke. He and his sister spent their childhoods in extreme poverty, and when, by virtue of a keen mind and sheer hard work, he managed to find a way out, his one guiding light has been that his family – his younger sister, Anne – should never know such squalor and privation again. Even his unexpectedly acquired ducal status hasn’t stopped him from continuing with his business interests, although as his empire expanded, he took care to act through intermediaries, so the full extent of his holdings remains a mystery to all but himself and his trusted man of business.
After trying – and failing – several times to purchase the Haverhill School for Young Ladies and its surrounding lands, August’s most recent offer has been accepted and his plans to develop the property are now underway. But seeing Clara Hayward’s name on the deeds has sparked long-buried memories of the one time they danced together, a decade ago, when a much younger – and, he admits, stupider – August had invited the renowned wallflower to dance having been egged on by a group of similarly stupid and thoughtless young bucks. During the dance, August discovered something he had not expected; an intelligence, poise and confidence which completely captivated him and left him somewhat bemused.
Although ten years have passed since then, he still remembers how Clara felt in his arms, how his world had tilted on its axis in the middle of a ballroom floor… and he finds himself wondering why she has finally agreed to sell Haverhall. A few judicious enquiries by his man of business reveal that the Hayward’s shipping company is on the verge of collapse and that the proceeds of the sale of Haverhill will not be enough to save it. Seeing his chance, August decides to purchase the company as quickly and quietly as possible, before anyone else gets wind of the situation and pre-empts him. Learning that Harland Haywood and his sisters are usually to be found at the British Museum on Wednesday afternoons, August plans to ‘accidentally’ bump into the man and try to gauge his receptiveness to a possible buyout – but before he can find him, he sees Clara – and is instantly smitten all over again.
Clara Hayward hopes that once their ships come in (so to speak) she will be able find somewhere else to continue her life’s work of teaching. She is pondering the loss of the school that has been her life’s work on one of her regular visits to the British Museum when a voice she’d never thought to hear again intrudes on her thoughts and she turns to find August Faulkner, the man who’d all but stolen her heart a decade ago, standing by her. She has to struggle to maintain her composure as he rather clumsily apologises for his behaviour ten years earlier and then engages her in a somewhat awkward conversation about the piece of sculpture in front of them. She is puzzled, however, when he asks if he can call upon her the next day; each year, Clara hosts an out-of-town summer school for a hand-picked group of young ladies – and given that Anne Faulkner is one of the party, surely her brother must know that their departure is scheduled for the following day? Before Clara can say something to this effect, however, they are interrupted and part shortly after, but when August discovers, two days later, that Anne has gone to attend the Haverhill Summer School, he immediately assumes that Clara had deliberately kept the knowledge from him and is furious.
Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, August follows, determined to keep an eye on Anne and then take her back home, but also intending to speak to Clara’s brother about the shipping business and to persuade him to sell it… plus he can’t deny that the prospect of seeing Clara again is an extremely enticing one.
August’s arrival shakes Clara’s equanimity. She feels an intense attraction to him and knows it would be all too easy to succumb to it, but she can’t afford to jepoardise her position as an educator of young women – so an affair is out of the question. In any case, her first loyalty must be to her pupils – all of whom are exceptional young women to whom she affords the chance to engage in the study of professions not normally open to them. Her brother – a practicing physician – tutors those interested in medicine; another longs to be a landscape gardener, and Anne Faulkner wants to be an hotelier, but is constantly frustrated by the well-meaning but unwanted interference of her brother who insists she need never bother her head about anything ever again. Clara and August play a sensual game of cat-and-mouse as they dance around their attraction to each other and try (and fail spectacularly) to fight it. As they become closer, Clara patiently challenges him over some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs and encourages him to really think about the way he, as a man, has so many avenues and options open to him that women – and in particular, Anne – do not. He struggles and he makes mistakes, but he is intelligent enough and honest enough to admit the truth of much of what Clara says, and finally to see that by wanting to ensure his sister has the best of everything, he has been stifling her. A prison with golden bars is a prison nonetheless.
Clara and August are a perfectly matched couple; both fiercely intelligent, quick witted and determined – and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching. As I’ve already said, Clara is an exceptionally realised heroine, and August’s journey from ignorance born of male privilege and his almost single-minded drive to protect those he loves is extremely well done.
A Duke in the Night is a fabulous read and a terrific start to this new series. My one, small, quibble is that it’s just a teeny bit difficult to believe that Clara and August are able to connect so passionately and on such a deep emotional level based on just one dance ten years earlier, especially as they haven’t seen each other at all during that time. That said, however, Ms. Bowen imbues their connection with such fervour and obvious sincerity that there is never any question that these two are meant to be.
If you’ve never read one of Kelly Bowen’s books before, then this is a good starting point; and if you have, then be prepared to kick back and enjoy one of what is sure to turn out to be one of the best historical romances of 2018.
Publisher and Release Date: Forever, February 2018
Time and Setting: England, 1829
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Duke. Scoundrel. Titan of business. August Faulkner is a man of many talents, not the least of which is enticing women into his bedchamber. He’s known—and reviled—for buying and selling companies, accumulating scads of money, and breaking hearts. It’s a reputation he wears like a badge of honor, and one he intends to keep.
Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, on the other hand, is above reproach. Yet when she’s reunited with August, all she can think of is the way she felt in his arms as they danced a scandalous waltz ten long years ago. Even though her head knows that he is only back in her life to take over her family’s business, her heart can’t help but open to the very duke who could destroy it for good.