How can she dare to imagine he loves her…when all London calls her The Ugly Duchess?
Theodora Saxby is the last woman anyone expects the gorgeous James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, to marry. But after a romantic proposal before the prince himself, even practical Theo finds herself convinced of her soon-to-be duke’s passion.
Still, the tabloids give the marriage six months.
Theo would have given it a lifetime…until she discovers that James desired not her heart, and certainly not her countenance, but her dowry. Society was shocked by their wedding; it’s scandalized by their separation.
Now James faces the battle of his lifetime, convincing Theo that he loved the duckling who blossomed into the swan.
And Theo will quickly find that for a man with the soul of a pirate, All’s Fair in Love—or War.
Heat Level: 4 = Explicit but tasteful
Review Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Jenny Q:
I loved the first two-thirds of this book. The characters are amazingly well-drawn and I loved the friendship between them. Though most of society doesn’t consider Theo to be a handsome woman, she is remarkably self-assured and comfortable in her own skin, and determined to be her own woman once she is finally out from beneath her mother’s ruffles-and-lace influence. James, on the other hand, is a bit lost, struggling between his own desires and his obligations as heir to a dukedom. Raised together since childhood, Theo and James are like two halves of a whole. Where James is unsure, Theo is there to bolster his confidence. When Theo concocts her latest hare-brained scheme, James is there to help her carry it out. So when James’s father, the Duke of Ashbrook, informs his son that not only has he squandered his own fortune, but that of Theo’s as well, which he had been entrusted to keep for her until her marriage, James is furious. When his father demands that James carry out the simple solution of marrying Theo to solve all of their problems and avoid a scandal and potential prison time, James is heartsick. Theo is his best friend. The only person in all the world who truly knows him and loves him anyway. How can he betray her trust by marrying her under false pretenses just to save his sorry father and his inheritance?
On top of that, he’s just agreed to Theo’s latest plan, that he squire her around town in an effort to help her catch the eye of the man she’s decided would be her perfect marriage match. James is miserable, tortured over what he must do and how he must do it, until he begins to help Theo carry out her plan and realizes that he doesn’t want to see her wed to the pompous ass she’s been drooling over, that he truly does have feelings for Theo, and that perhaps he can still obey his father’s command with truth and honor. At first Theo is stunned when James declares himself to her, but it doesn’t take her long to come to the startling realization that James has always been the one for her. All of London is shocked when the most handsome bachelor in town announces his engagement to one of the least handsome ladies, and an invite to the big event become the hottest ticket in town. Unfortunately, it’s also a heyday for the press, and one unscrupulous reporter’s careless comment takes on epic proportions as Theo becomes known throughout the land as “The Ugly Duchess.”
James is determined to keep Theo from believing the tabloids by occupying her mind with other things (wink, wink!), and after two days of marriage Theo feels more desirable than she ever thought possible, and James is alive with plans for the happy future before them. But then James’s sorry father comes along, and with a few careless comments within Theo’s earshot, their happy marriage comes crashing down. Theo is crushed, humiliated, betrayed, furious. She refuses to believe anything James says, though he begs her for another chance. She orders him away and determines to start rebuilding the ruined estate, and her future, all on her own.
And that’s where the story takes a dive, at least for me. I loved the way Theo blossomed into her own, I loved the way she set the stage for returning to society and taking London by storm. She’s a fantastic character and her story arc is a beautiful, emotional journey. My problem was with James. After Theo kicks him to the curb, James takes his ship, leaves England, and becomes a privateer. At first I thought, OK, this is good. He needs to live a little and discover who he really is and that he’s worthy of going back to London and fighting for the woman he loves. But he does a little too much living, in my opinion. I was very surprised at the direction James’s story took and I wasn’t pleased with some of the decisions he made. And seven years is too long of a separation. Seven years is too long for James to be having a fine old time living the life of a legal pirate, with all of the perks that come along with that lifestyle, while Theo is stuck at home, devastated that her husband cares so little for her as to stay away so long, and then devastated as she grows increasingly sure that her best friend and love of her life is dead.
So after everything that happened during that seven years of separation, and the manner in which James finally returned home, seeing that happily-ever-after ending achieved in such a short time span was rather hard to swallow. I really wanted to see more remorse from James and I wanted to see Theo make him work harder to get her back. Even with my anger at James and his character flaws, this could still have been a 5-star read if that final third of the story had been handled more realistically. So I was disappointed in the means to the end, but the book was such an emotional read for me, and one that I couldn’t put down, and the actual ending was so sweet and worthwhile, that it still ranks as a pretty good read in my book. Not your typical fluffy Regency romance and well worth a spin for lovers of the genre, though be prepared for those bumps in the road to true love.