by Julia London, historical (2006)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 1-4165-1615-8
Despite the breezy title, Julia London's The Hazards Of Hunting A Duke is an "issues" romance. Which is to say, the conflicts in the relationship between Jared Broderick and Ava Fairchild are purely internal in nature, with Jared being the problematic husband and Ava having to find a way to get her husband to acknowledge the love they have for each other. What I really like about this story is the fact that both the hero and the heroine have flaws - they are not perfect people, so if you especially love your heroines to be those perfect creatures typical of the genre, you may cringe when Ava pulls off some of her stunts in this story. I do like my characters giving back as good as they get though, and Jared does deserve to squirm more than once in this story, so when Ava puts him on the hot grill, I'm actually enjoying much of her "selfish" and "manipulative" actions.
Ava is the eldest of the three Fairchild debutantes - her sister Phoebe and her cousin Greer make up the other two who will naturally get their books next - and in a way, I suppose we can call her the "flirty" one while Phoebe is the "sensible" one. But really, there is no easy way to categorize each sister using just one word so I'm already liking what Ms London is doing here. Jared is the troubled son of the Duke of Middleton who constantly carries out passive forms of rebellion against his domineering and iron-fisted father since he lacks the courage and the fortitude to challenge the old man in open warfare. He's a rake, she's a flirt, and they happen to meet one evening when he is dancing with an ex-mistress while she is dancing with a bumbling but smitten admirer. He is attracted to her and entranced by how she manages to find amusement from dancing with possibly the worst dancer ever in London, while she is attracted to danger and the infamy that is Jared.
The situation leading to their intimate grope and kiss in a darkened carriage is contrived and can be seen coming a mile away but Ms London does an excellent job building up the attraction between the two leads until that scene. Ms London doesn't just smack me in the head with the fact that those two want to jump each other's bones right away, she instead puts in all those small details that the two characters notices and likes in each other like she's detailing the minutiae of sexual attraction.
Alas, nothing comes out of that incident until later, when Ava's mother dies and her stepfather decides that he'd rather see his stepdaughters and that poor relation stepniece married off rather than to keep a roof over their heads with the money that is now his. He runs off to pursue a mistress in France (don't ask) and the three women have to find a way to get money in the meantime. Ava decides to marry into money and is foolish or confident enough, depending on one's point of view, to set her eyes on Jared who is the heir to one of the biggest fortunes in England. Unknown to her, Jared wants to marry someone to get his father to back off from forcing Jared to marry a plain and boring young woman of the old man's choosing. He wants a woman that he can lust after, one whose company he enjoys being in, and one who is preferably an orphan because he already has one annoying father to handle and he doesn't want more parents to deal with. That makes Ava the perfect wife of convenience for him - he'll bed her, get a son from her to keep his father happy, and he'll be free to continue his affair with his mistress Miranda. As she tries to pursue him, he in turn starts to pursue her, heh.
Alas, while Ava starts out intending to approach the marriage like a business relationship just like what Jared proposed, she decides to change the rules when she realizes that she's falling for Jared. I must confess that Ava becomes truly irritating in the last few chapters of this book as she just doesn't have the grace to lie in the bed that she has made, instead acting as if Jared is somehow wrong for not being in love with her. He does love her, actually, but the thing is, like Jared tells Ava, she walks into this marriage with her eyes wide open, so it's not like she can squeal that Jared has misled her in any way. Ms London is aware of how hypocritical and unsporting Ava is, which is good, because Ava comes to her epiphany in a way that satisfies me very late into the story.
What I do like about Ava though is that she is fully aware of her attraction to men and she isn't afraid to exploit the weakness of the opposite sex towards her. She charms Jared's father in a cool as ice manner and she isn't above using her beauty, sex, and Jared's weakness to her charms when it comes to waging her psychological warfare with her not-so-pliable husband. While she comes to the marriage bed a virgin, Ava soon learns fast about sex. She would have Jared all putty in her hands - ahem - if Jared isn't the more experienced hedonist and she isn't as susceptible to his sexual allure as he is to hers. While Ms London makes a misstep of sorts by turning Ava into a one-note sulky shrew in the last few chapters - thankfully, it is only for a few chapters! - I can see why Ava behaves that way though since she has been pushed to the brink. I'm not saying that Ava is right or wrong in behaving that way, I'm just saying that I can understand why Ava chooses to behave that way. This is what Ms London is good at doing in her stories, I notice: while her heroines can sometimes behave in ways that can make me feel like wanting to rest my forehead against the table and weep, Ms London always explains why the heroines choose to behave in that manner and therefore I can understand why the heroines do the things they do. Sure, Ava can be a ninny, but with Ms London at the helm of things, Ava becomes a ninny person rather than a cardboard one-note hemorrhage of dumb.
As for Jared, oh, be still my heart. He's a very nicely-done bad boy. He is a genuine rake in that while he does have some demons lurking under the bells in his belfry, Ms London uses his angst and baggage to explain to me why he sometimes does some of the things he will do in this story while stopping short of using those issues as a means to justify Jared's actions. Like Ava, Jared isn't perfect and some of the things he does make me wince in how stupid he is because the wife will only have a worse impression of him if she ever finds out. And yes, she does. Okay, let me get this out of the way so that readers will breathe a little easier: Jared doesn't cheat on Ava - in fact, he's been shockingly monogamous throughout this book and he doesn't even have any interest in other women including Miranda (who he breaks things off with right before he marries Ava). The problem here is that Jared is afraid of love. He views love as a kind of weakness and after I know of Jared's background, I understand why he feels that way. Jared is perplexed as to why Ava isn't content with his respect and friendship. The poor adorable dolt doesn't understand at all, oh dear.
Jared's falling in love is one of the best things about this story. In a way, Ms London's treatment of Jared is comparable to the best moments in a Loretta Chase story when those oh-so-confident men start bucking in the knees under the realization that Oh My God They're In Love! and can't decide whether to sweat buckets and curse at the skies or run straight to the dearest wife and shag her brains out. By the last page, the formerly arrogant rake is an earnest man who, while retaining his charm and arrogance and all, is willing to go all lengths to indulge the wife and make sure that he will never make her unhappy again.
So yes, Jared and Ava aren't perfect and they have their moments of ninny behavior, but they won't be human if they are perfect now, will they? Ms London grants me insight into her characters' motivations, which makes those characters' actions always understandable even if I don't always agree with them. If I always agree with the characters, won't that be a boring book to read after all? Ms London's sensitivity to her characters works wonders here: I end up thinking that on the whole those two pretty much complement each other very well, with her strengths complementing his weaknesses just as his strengths complement her weaknesses.
This book isn't always smooth-sailing though - there are some obvious chops in narration where some matters (like Ava's stepfather running off to pursue the mistress) are dropped after they were brought up while other scenes (like Jared breaking off his relationship with Miranda) could have developed a little more to enable me to gain more insight into Jared's psyche.
But all in all, I thoroughly enjoy following Ava and Jared to their happy ending, bumps on the road there and all, and their story is well-written enough with some memorable scenes of romance, love, and stormy confrontations to make sure that I will revisit this book again some time in the near future.
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