The Confessions of a Duchess by Nicola Cornick
When the squire of Fortune's Folly is turned down by the town's richest bachelorette he decides to get his revenge by enforcing the dame's tax, a medieval mandate whereby every unmarried lady in the town has to give Lord Montague, the town's squire, half their fortune. This has the dubious effect of making Fortune's Folly the place to be for all the fortune hunters of the town. Dexter Anstruther has been working for the government for the last several years and he is sent by Lord Liverpool to the town to investigate a local businessman he suspects of having had something to do with the fake suicide (it's really a murder) of Sir William Crosby. It is there he once again comes face-t0-face with Laura, the dowager duchess of Cole, with whom he shared one night of passion with 4 years before. He had been 22, she 30, and he was convinced he was in love with her and begged her to run away with him. She turned him down, broke his heart, and after briefly turning to whores, drinking, and gambling, he took control of his life and has been enforcing the law ever since. But one meeting with Laura is enough to threaten the tight reign he has over his emotion and he cannot stop the flood of emotions, memories, and lust that strikes him whenever she is near.
For her part, Laura never meant to break Dexter's heart, but felt that running away with a married duchess would ruin the young man with his whole future ahead of him. When Dexter comes back into town Laura is terrified that the secret that she has kept for over 3 years will come to light and ruin her life. Laura's daughter Harriet, while always accepted as the deceased Duke of Cole's daughter, is in fact Dexter's daughter from that long ago night. On top of this accidents have continually befallen Laura and Dexter begins to wonder if there is someone in Fortune's Folly who wants to hurt Laura. As a possible motive there is Laura's work against the Dame's Tax; she has done everything she, and her two close friends in the town, can think of to thwart Lord Montague's attempts to collect the money. Dexter is determined to romance Lydia Cole, a cousin by marriage of Laura, but he cannot stop thinking about the dowager duchess nor can he keep his hands off of her whenever they are together. When they are caught in a compromising position Dexter makes an offer for Laura that she promptly refuses, but when he discovers the truth of Hattie's parentage he forces her to marry him with the threat that he will reveal the truth to everyone. Dexter is sure that he can keep his unruluy emotions under control and keep their union passionate, yet reasonable and sedate, but this is not an arrangement either of them can live with and it is Dexter who must realize that he wants all of the benefits of marriage.
The most notable part of this book is the way that lust seems to permeate everything. Every thought that Dexter has seems to be about how much he desires Laura and why he should. Even Laura seems to be constantly lustful and thinking about Dexter, although she at least does have other notable pursuits including acting as the highwaywoman Glory who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. This was one of the more awkward parts of the book whenever Glory was mentioned as it kind of seemed as though there had been a previous book in the series, although as far as I can tell this is the first book in The Brides of Fortune series. Laura has other acts of charity as well and the people and she comes across as a genuine person who wants to help others and her charity doesn't seem like a ploy to merely make the character seem "good" (see Stephanie Laurens) or just the only respectable way a widow can think of to keep herself occupied. The other wierd-ish part of the book involves Laura's servants who had worked with her when she was still married and who apparently suffered a nervous breakdown when the new duchess proved too demanding. There are vague allusions to her incessant demands but I can't help but wonder exactly what happened, as there is no allusion to physical abuse, to make two able bodied and minded people become shaky and literally lose a little bit of their mind? They're servants- I would think they were used to handling demands.
The book is beautifully written with a LOT of internal dialogue- in fact internal dialogue propably accounts for well over 1/2 the book with descriptions (which are detailed without being flowery or bogging down the book) and dialogue between characters being the other 1/2. Cornick has a beautiful way with words and I loved several scenes that were just so amazingly well written, especially the parts where Dexter realized that Laura had lied to him all those years ago when she claimed not to have loved him and the part where Laura becomes bogged down in despair when she believes her marriage has no hope for love. Simply amazing and beautiful. This book sets up the sequels perfectly as I cannot wait to read the stories of the other woman of Fortune, especially that of Lydia whose story is hinted at in this one, but not resolved, however she apparently doesn't have her own book in the series- interesting. There was a cool bit of angst on both there parts as Dexter fought of his love for the woman who kept his child hidden from him and as Laura deals with guilt over hiding said child and lying to him about her love. The sex is interesting and very emotion driven instead of lust driven (which makes it odd that Dexter is so intent on claiming that their passion has nothing to do with love) although I found her use of the phrase "make love" to be used even when the term didn't really seem to apply.
Rating: Between two amazing characters and the beautiful writing I had no choice but to love this book. I look forward so much to the other two in the series (reviews coming soon), but the book didn't have everything I look for in a 5 heart book.