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Biweekly marriage proposals from men who can’t see beyond her (admittedly breathtaking) looks are starting to get on Lady Clara Fairfax’s nerves. Desperate to be something more than ornamental, she escapes to her favorite charity. When a child goes missing, she turns to Oliver Radford—a handsome, brilliant, excessively conceited barrister.
Having unexpectedly found himself in line to inherit a dukedom, Radford needs a bride who can navigate the Society he’s never been part of. If he can find one without having to set foot in a ballroom, so much the better. Clara—blonde, blue-eyed, and he must admit, not entirely bereft of brains—will do. As long as he can woo her, wed her—and not, like every other sapskull in London, lose his head over her…
“Look out! Are you blind? Get out of the way!”
Clara hadn’t time to see what she was in the way of when an arm snaked about her waist and yanked her back from the curb. Then she saw the black and yellow gig hurtling toward her.
At the last minute, it swerved away, toward the watermen and boys clustered about the statue of King Charles I. Then once more it veered abruptly off course. It nicked a passing omnibus, struck a limping dog, and swung into St. Martin’s Lane, leaving pandemonium in its wake.
Some inches above her head—and plainly audible above the bystanders’ shouts and shrieks and the noise of carriages, horses, and dogs—a deep, cultivated voice uttered an oath. The muscular arm came away from her waist and the arm’s owner stepped back a pace. She looked up at him, more up than she was accustomed to.
His face seemed familiar, though her brain couldn’t find a name to attach to it. Under his hat brim, a single black curl fell against his right temple. Below the dark, sharply angled eyebrows, a pair of cool grey eyes regarded her. Her own gaze moved swiftly from his uncomfortably sharp scrutiny down his long nose and firmly chiseled mouth and chin.
The day was warm, but the warmth she felt started on the inside.
“I daresay you noticed nothing about him?” he said. “But why do I ask a pointless question? Everybody flies into a panic and nobody pays attention. The correct question is, Does it matter?” He shrugged. “Only to the dog, perhaps. And in that regard one may say that the driver simply put the wretched brute out of its misery. Let’s call it an act of mercy. Well, then. Not injured, my lady? No swooning? No tears? Excellent. Good day.”
He touched the brim of his hat and started away.
“A man and a boy in a black Stanhope gig trimmed in yellow,” she said to his back. Clara was aware of the tall, black-garbed figure pausing, but she was concentrating, to hold the fleeting image in her mind. “Carriage freshly painted. Blood bay mare. White stripe. White sock . . . off hind leg. No tiger. The boy . . . I’ve seen him before, near Covent Garden. Red hair. Square face. Spotty. Garish yellow coat. Cheap hat. The driver had a face like a whippet. His coat . . . a better one but not right. Not a gentleman.”
Her rescuer slowly turned back to her, one dark eyebrow upraised. “Face like a whippet?”
“A narrow, elongated face,” she said. With one gloved hand, whose tremor was barely noticeable, she made a lengthening gesture over her own face. “Sharp features. He drives to an inch. He might have spared the dog.”
Her rescuer looked her up and down, so briefly Clara wasn’t altogether sure he’d done it. But then his expression became acutely intent.
She kept her sigh to herself and her chin upraised, and waited for the wall to go up.
“You’re certain,” he said.
Why should I be certain? she thought. I’m only a woman and so of course I have no brain to speak of.
She said, more impatiently than she ought to, “I could see the dog was barely alive. No doubt boys would have tortured him or a horse would have kicked him or a cart would have rolled over him soon enough. But that driver knew what he was doing. He struck the animal on purpose.”
The stranger’s keen gaze shifted away from her to scan the square.
“What an idiot,” he said. “Making a spectacle of himself. Killing the dog was meant as a warning to me, obviously. A master of subtlety he is not.” When his gaze returned to her, he said, “A whippet, you say.”
“Well done,” he said.
For an instant Clara thought he’d pat her on the head, as one would a puppy who’d learned a new trick. But he only stood there, alternately looking at her then looking about him. His mouth twitched a little, as though he meant to smile, but he didn’t.
“That man, whoever he is, is a public menace,” she said. “I have an appointment or I should report the incident to the police.” She had no appointment. Her visit to the Milliners’ Society was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But a lady was not to have anything to do with the police. Even if she got murdered, she ought to do it discreetly. “I must leave the matter to you.”
“Firstly, nobody was injured but a dog it’s obvious nobody cared about,” the gentleman said. “Otherwise the creature would have been a degree more alive to begin with. Secondly, one doesn’t pester the police about the demise, violent or otherwise, of a mere canine unless its owner is an aristocrat. Thirdly, it’s now clear the fellow was aiming for me when you stepped in the way. I couldn’t see him clearly through the”—he gestured at her hat, his mouth twitching again—“the whatnot rising from your head. But Whippet Face . . .” Now he smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile, being small and quick, but it changed his face, and her heart gave a short, surprised thump. “He’s been trying to kill me this age. He’s not the only one. Hardly worth troubling the constabulary.”
He gave her the briefest nod, then turned and strode away.
Clara stood staring after him.
Tall, lean, and self-assured, he moved with swift purpose through the sea of people surging over the streets converging on Trafalgar Square. Even after he entered the Strand, he didn’t disappear from sight for a while. His hat and broad shoulders remained visible above the mass of humanity until he reached Clevedon House, when a passing coach blocked her view.
He never looked back.
He never looked back.
Publisher and Release Date: Avon, January 2016
Time and Setting: 1830s England
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars
Review by Lady Wesley
Thank you, Loretta Chase, for listening to your fans and giving Lady Clara Fairfax her own happily ever after. We first met Lady Clara, daughter of the Marquess of Warford, in Silk Is for Seduction, when she was unofficially betrothed to her childhood friend, the Duke of Clevedon. She was perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect – except for one thing.
Clara’s wardrobe was dreadful, and the French-English Noirot sisters were determined to get her as a client for their dressmaker shop. They did obtain her patronage, but in the end Lady Clara refused to marry a man who wasn’t in love with her, and the duke married Marceline Noirot. Lady Clara was disappointed in love in Scandal Wears Satin, but pleased when her brother married Sophie Noirot. And in Vixen in Velvet Lady Clara plays a secondary role as her dowdy cousin Gladys falls under the Noirot sisters’ spell.
With impeccable politeness, Lady Clara simply demanded her own story, and Loretta Chase listened. In Dukes Prefer Blondes (unfortunately title, that), we learn that Lady Clara is much more than just another wealthy, beautiful young lady. She is intelligent and witty and she silently chafes under the oppressive rules of conduct to which ladies of that day were expected to adhere. She dreads becoming the wife of a man who wants her only for her beauty and her fortune. As she becomes resigned to this fate, however, she decides to perform one selfless service before coming under the dominion of some gentleman.
Lady Clara is a patroness of a charity run by the Noirot sisters which trains impoverished women for respectable work. One young woman is concerned about her younger brother, who has stopped attending school and disappeared; she fears he may have been forced into a criminal gang. Lady Clara vows to help her but has not the first idea how to go about it. Fenwick, the Noirot sisters’ pickpocket-turned-footboy suggests that she enlist the help of the eminent barrister Oliver Radford, known to all at the Old Bailey by his schoolboy nickname, “Raven.”
Raven Radford is the last man anyone would choose for Lady Clara Fairfax. Although he is the great-grandson of a duke, he is a commoner who earns his living as a barrister, a barely respectable occupation, given that he defends the dregs of society. He eschews meaningless social events and polite conversation. He knows that he is the smartest man in the room and has no use for fools. In fact, he is known for saying exactly what he thinks to any one at any time. He is passionate about his profession and not much else.
When a beautiful blonde lady strides into his office, he sees through the her frumpy disguise and remembers a dauntless eight-year-old girl who once defended him against his bullying cousin at a Vauxhall family outing. Raven was a schoolmate of Lady Clara’s older brother and of the odious cousin Bernard. To this day, Lady Clara has a chipped tooth where her mouth met Bernard’s elbow. For his part, “Beastly Bernard”, now the Duke of Malvern, has grown into a self-indulgent, utterly irresponsible drunk whom Raven detests.
Before Raven can dismiss Lady Clara for the useless lady he believes her to be, she takes charge of the situation, and by the end of the interview, where she matches him blow for verbal blow, Raven discovers a burgeoning respect for her. Against his better judgment, he finds himself helping her on her quest to find the missing boy.
And so, the first half of this wonderful book features Lady Clara and Raven meeting surreptitiously and doing all sorts of things that would give her mother the vapors. Clara, who wants passion but has never known it, begins to wonder if perhaps that is what she feels for Raven. And Raven, who has always avoided titled young ladies, discovers that he not only desires this lovely woman, he also admires her intellect, her determination, and her fearlessness in the face of his initial disdain.
Naturally, they fall in love but fear to admit it. Raven knows that they come from two different worlds and that neither would fit into the other’s. Nor would Lady Clara’s father ever consent to her marriage to a man could not begin to support the style of life she has always known.
In the end, Lady Clara has to force Raven to the point. Reminding him that she was raised to be a duchess, she declares:
“Perhaps I ought to marry Beastly Bernard,” she said before he could step far enough away from himself to fashion a rational sentence. “He sounds as though he needs someone like me desperately. Being despotic, I should not have much difficulty making something of him. In my experience, men like Bernard are not at all difficult to manage.”
Radford stared at her. It took a moment for his brain to connect to his tongue.
“Bernard,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s the duke in the family, is he not?”
As expected, Lord Warford does refuse Raven’s request to marry Lady Clara, but when Raven asks for a “fair trial” of the “charges” against him, her parents agree to listen. There they learn that not for nothing is he known as the leading barrister of the day. In a lovely scene, he delivers not only a strong defense of himself but also a stirring oration on behalf of letting Lady Clara be the woman she wants and needs to be. Finally, as Lady Warford reaches for the smelling salts, Lord Warford consents.
“’Mr. Radford is unsuitable on a wide array of counts,” the marquess said.
“Except the most important one,” Lord Warford went on. “He suits you, and you seem to suit him.’”
Loretta Chase is known for her witty banter between leading characters, and she puts her talent to excellent use here. But really, their conversations, while funny, are much more than banter. They actually listen to one another, and although each wants to get their own way, they demonstrate mutual respect and a desire to please the other. But it isn’t just all talk; the chemistry between them jumps off the page, and the wedding night scene is a classic.
In the second part of the book, while the couple adjusts to married life together, they are also put in danger by a band of criminals seeking revenge against Radford, and unexpected events in Radford’s family upend their lives. Some of the sexiness dissipates a bit, but it’s fun to watch them devise a true partnership where each is able to put their talents to the best use on behalf of the other.
As with the other Dressmaker books, clothes are important, and the outrageous fashions of the 1830s are described in loving detail. The Noirot sisters make a cameo appearance because of course Lady Clara must have the most fabulous wedding dress ever created. But really, this is Radford’s and Clara’s story, which means it works well even if you haven’t read the earlier books.
It is no surprise that the immensely talented Loretta Chase has produced another winner. Radford and Lady Clara are a perfect couple on many levels and reading their story was a joy. Dukes Prefer Blondes is highly recommended!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Loretta Chase has worked in academe, retail, and the visual arts, as well as on the streets-as a meter maid-and in video, as a scriptwriter. She might have developed an excitingly checkered career had her spouse not nagged her into writing fiction. Her bestselling historical romances, set in the Regency and Romantic eras of the early 19th century, have won a number of awards, including the Romance Writers of America’s Rita. For more about her past, her books, and what she does and doesn’t do on social media, please visit her website www.LorettaChase.com.