Well, this is one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a long time. I really mean that. I tore through this in about 24 hours because I just couldn’t stand to be parted from it.
Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. Of course, the reason she can get away with being all of these things is because she lives a life outside the bounds of the good ton. Sophia White is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Hennessey, sired on his wife’s maid. Raised in obscurity, Sophia eventually finds a comfortable place at the Tantalus Club (a gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and staffed entirely by ladies, if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series or my reviews of them) — and she appears in both of the previous books in the series as a supporting character. This was going along well for her until her father randomly chose to care about her existence again — not to acknowledge her, but to threaten her. Tired of being ribbed by his peers about his by-blow’s occupation, he’s arranged for her to marry an alarmingly pious vicar in Cornwall; if Sophia doesn’t agree, he will use his power to destroy the Tantalus Club and everyone Sophia cares about.
Adam Baswich, Duke of Greaves, unwittingly provides Sophia with an opportunity for one last hurrah before her sentencing. He invites her to a Christmas house party at his estate in Yorkshire, ostensibly to keep Camille and Keating (see Taming an Impossible Rogue) company. But as Sophia is traveling to the estate, the bridge over the river collapses, dunking her in it. Adam rescues her, but that leaves them as the only people on the correct side of the river until the bridge is repaired, except for Adam’s unbelievably snotty elder sister. (And I do find this a bit of a plot stretch — I mean, really, no one could build a raft or a pontoon or something? I mean, this is the River Aire they’re talking about — not exactly a huge impediment — but I’m willing to forgive it because of what it leads to). Now, why was the Duke giving such a large house party? Apparently it’s his custom at Christmas, as he’s someone who clings to company so as not to be left alone with his own mind (I empathise, Adam); but this year, there’s something more pressing: he also invites a dozen eligible young ladies so that he can choose a bride from among them. His father’s will stipulates that he marry by age 30 and produce an heir by age 31, or else all the property and money goes to his sister’s son. (Side note: I know I’ve read another book in the past year with that exact same stipulation. I think it might’ve been one of Mary Balogh’s? I don’t appear to have reviewed it, if I did, but regardless — I find it very odd and improbable. The requirement to marry makes sense, but surely any English peer would know what a dicey thing getting an heir is, and would not set a time limit on that). But since none of the eligible ladies can get across the river until the bridge is repaired, Adam has to settle for Sophia’s company. And what company it turns out to be.
The most excellent thing about this book is that Adam and Sophia are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. But they can’t see it, bless ’em. They do build a real friendship, which is so important and honestly pretty rare in romance novels. Adam is astonished to discover that there’s a woman he actually enjoys spending time around and conversing with, and Sophia is pleased not to be treated like a leper or a whore. They are so gorgeous together. The friendship is there, but powerful attraction is as well, and it doesn’t take long for them to fall into bed together — but the way it happens is sort of fantastic. They’re playing cards and wagering kisses, until Sophia — Sophia! — suggests playing strip piquet instead. I thought it was brilliant. Enoch does a great job turning up the heat in that scene, too — not just giving in to the hormones immediately, but letting it simmer, then bubble, then broil over. I know that feeling, the long tease, knowing precisely where the night’s going to end but suspending gratification to make it all the better — and Enoch captures the tantalising delight of it so well. The sex scenes throughout this book are magnificent, not least because we don’t have to deal with any of that “teach the virgin to accept pleasure” nonsense. Nope, Sophia knows what she wants and grabs at it, quite literally in a few cases. It’s so refreshing.
But, the bridge gets repaired, and Adam and Sophia have to face the music. Adam sets to trying to pick a bride out from the herd he invited over, but though he tries to reconcile himself to the idea of Lady Caroline Emery, least offensive of the bunch, he of course can’t stay away from Sophia. Sophia, meanwhile, is having to fend off all kinds of gross behaviour from men and women alike. If she’s not getting sneered at and insulted, she’s being propositioned. The men all want to know if she’s Adam’s mistress — and I actually really enjoy the interplay around this. Because she isn’t. She doesn’t want to be, and she lets Adam know that right from the start. A lover, but not a mistress, not someone who’s kept and paid for. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances of their world, that also leaves her unprotected. And that creates quite a bit of drama for them both.
I knock half a point off because the end is a little unsatisfying — it all crashes together very quickly, with literally no denouement whatsoever. I want to know more, to be assured of their future happiness! How do they deal with the vicar? How do they handle life back in London? Does Adam manage to get the heir he needs in the fourteen months remaining to him? Enoch had better wrap those details up with a cameo in the next book, or I might have a bit of a hissy fit. And I also dock for an unflattering portrayal of Cornwall, which really is a lovely region with gorgeous landscapes and the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. On the whole, though, Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.
I’m excited for the next book in the series to come out in a few months. I’m curious who the next heroine will be (as Enoch’s website doesn’t say and I haven’t looked it up elsewhere yet) — my money is on Emily Portsmouth, because far too much has been made of her keeping her true identity a secret for her to just be a side mention, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Lady Caroline Emery get a story of her own. She seems a likely sort.